Monday, 27 August 2012

Sir Read A Lot interviews Elizabeth Chadwick

Elizabeth Chadwick is, without doubt, one of the most respected, popular and widely read authors of historical fiction of the last twenty years.  Her books are published in many languages and feature a host of real characters from the past whose stories are told in vivid detail.  Elizabeth is acclaimed by many for the depth of her research and she regularly updates her Facebook page with a photo and snippet of information on books she uses to research the past.

Famous for titles such as "The Greatest Knight", "The Lady of the English" and "Knights of the White Castle" she is currently working on a series of novels telling the story of  the most famous medieval Queen of all - Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Her "Marshal" stories, telling the life of one of the most influential power-brokers of the 12th/13th Century, William Marshal, remain a firm favourite of many and she has written about William's father as well as his daughter, Mahelt.

Taking some time away from the edit of her latest work in progress, she has very kindly given me an interview and provided a prize for a giveaway!

1 – Firstly, Elizabeth I would like to thank you for gracing my Court of Historical Fiction with your presence. Your books are a firm favourite of mine, how did you start writing and why choose historical fiction?

Thank you Sir Read a Lot, and thank you for inviting me to your Court of Historical Fiction.
I began writing when I was 15 years old, but before that I had told myself stories verbally from first memory. I began writing after I watched a BBC TV children's programme titled Desert Crusader and fell in love with the hero. I suppose it began as a piece of fan fiction, but quickly developed a life of its own. Rather like the Mary Poppins film where Mary and the children jump into Bert's chalk pavement picture and then go and have an adventure deeper into the picture. I might have started off with the TV programme in mind, but the story and characters soon became independent of the latter.
I didn't know anything about the Holy Land in the 12th century so I had to begin researching. Since my character’s story arc brought him back to England, I had to research the Angevin period in northern Europe. The more I researched the life and times, the more interested I became in the Middle Ages and the more I wanted to write about it. Basically one fed off the other round in a circle. I wrote eight novels before I was taken on by a leading London literary agent, which goes to show that you need to persevere. I would also say that those eight novels were a time of learning my craft and the first ones were apprentice pieces, albeit highly enjoyable to write.

2 – Your most well-known books are about William Marshal and his family. Can you tell us how you discovered this amazing man and how you came to write about him?

You can't study the 12th and 13th centuries without coming across the great William Marshal. He is involved in many of the politics and dramatic moments of the time. He was born in the reign of King Stephen and even served him for a time while being held hostage by him. He went on to serve Eleanor of Aquitaine, her eldest son Henry the Young King, his father Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, King John and Henry III. As a young man he was a jousting champion par excellence, moving on to become a great magnate and experienced elder statesman- and still a fine warrior. Where ever you look if you are studying the Angevin Empire, you will cross William Marshal's path.

I had thought about writing about him for some time, it was just a matter of gaining the confidence to do so. I used to lie in bed thinking ‘Someone should write about William Marshal, and gradually came to the conclusion that it might just have to be me! I had to persuade my publishers and my agent that he would be a good subject to tackle. By fortuitous circumstances, my agent had recently visited the temple church and seen the tomb effigies of William Marshal and two of his sons, so she was keen to find out more about them. I did some preliminary, but detailed research, wrote a synopsis and first three chapters and sent them up to my publisher, and found myself with a two book contract to write about William Marshal, the books becoming The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion.

3 – As a regular follower of you on Facebook, I love your posts which give little glimpses of your work in progress. Your current project is based on the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, which is a huge undertaking. Is this a story you have always wanted to tell?

I have wanted to write about Eleanor for many years. She was the project waiting behind the Marshal novels. While I was mulling the Eleanor project other novels about her have been published, but that doesn't bother me, because everyone tells their own version, and it is safe to say that my Eleanor will be a very different one, while staying true to the historical record. For example, we know from recent research that she was married at only 13 years old, not 15 as earlier biographers thought, and that makes a huge difference to what kind of influence she was able to wield as Duchess of Aquitaine. People often say to me that Eleanor was a woman ahead of her time, but that is not true. She was a woman of her time, confined by the parameters of the social mores of the 12th century when for a woman to have power in her own right was almost unthinkable. I am absolutely delighted that my publishers have given me the opportunity to write a trilogy about Eleanor's life. I was over the moon when they awarded me a three book contract because there is a great deal waiting to be said that so far hasn't been. I have just handed in THE SUMMER QUEEN, which covers Eleanor's life from 1137-1154.

4 – You are releasing a set of three books, A Place Beyond Courage, The Greatest Knight & The Scarlet Lion, which tells the story of John FitzGilbert and his son William Marshal. What prompted you to release them as a collection? When are you releasing them?

It's not me personally who is releasing them, and it's not as a collection as such. As with all fiction that has been in print for a while, publishers tend to refresh it by changing the covers every now and then. You can see this with authors such as Philippa Gregory today, and if you look back at the works of Anya Seton and Dorothy Dunnett you will observe the same trend. Having said that, the original A Place Beyond Courage in the UK was given the cover of a woman with a sweeping turquoise sleeve when it actual fact the story is about William Marshal's charismatic father. I was never over the moon about this cover, and my UK publishers decided to repackage the first three Marshal covers to feature men. The Greatest Knight has always had a man on the front cover and has always been my biggest bestseller because it attracted a male as well as female audience. Sometimes men can be a bit reluctant to pick up books featuring headless woman in nice dresses! So the packaging of the Marshal novels with men on the front is to see what an effect it has on the market. I love the new covers and I think they reflect what the novels are about and will help to diversify my audience. The repackage covers will be available in the UK from early September, although you may see a few floating about just before then, and the sourcebooks USA version of A Place Beyond Courage will be available from September 1st - again early copies may be spotted in the wild!

5 – You use a special form of research called “Akashic Records”, how did you discover this insight and how has it helped you in your writing.

The “Akashic Records” is a handle my friend Alison King uses to describe her wonderful and extraordinary ability to see back into the past. Given a name a date and place or similar coordinates, she can tune into what went before and it plays for her a bit like a film but with every sensory detail involved as well as feelings and emotions. She doesn’t just get visuals, but smells and tastes too, which can be a bit of a double edged sword! 
Alison had been working with clients for some time as a therapist, helping them with issues in their daily lives. Sometimes those issues would involve events of 20 years ago and sometimes the people concerned with those issues had passed on. Alison found that she could tune in to the time that the issues were occurring and also to the person with whom her client was involved even if they were no longer living. Clients told her that she was picking up on that person exactly, She reasoned that if she could do it 20 years why not any time in history?

I have known Alison for over 20 years as a friend. We met up one day for a chat and she asked me how the writing of The Greatest Knight was coming along. I said not too badly, but I was having difficulty finding anything about William Marshal's brother’s mistress. Alison offered to tune in and see if she could find her, and came across a lady swinging a bag on a string. Alison wondered if she was drying lettuce - that's how much she knew about the Middle Ages! I suggested that it might be hawking lure. To cut a long story short, the detail that came through in a small moment over coffee and biscuits, convinced me that this was a terrific resource to help me write the novels, and we set it up on a professional basis. Once a fortnight I go to Alison's house with a list of questions -she never knows what I am going to ask in advance. She tunes in to the historical moment and finds out what I want to know – if she can. I transcribe the digital recordings of our sessions and send them to a mediaeval historian for comment. I am told that it is medieval mindset through and through.

I accept taht many people are not comfortable with this aspect as a part of historical research, and consider it tosh, but that's fine. All they need do is take it as another strand of imagination, because the things I am finding out would be down to imagination anyway. I've been using the Akashic Records since 2004 and with the amount of material I have amassed I am convinced there is more to it than that, and it is a kind of time travel, but that's my personal opinion. In interviews like this I tell people what I do and then it's up to them whether they take it on board or not.

This is a description of William Marshal from the second Akashic session we ever did.
I asked Alison to find William Marshal in Poitou in 1168 when he would be serving as a young hearth knight of about 21 years old in the retinue of his Uncle Patrick, Earl of Salisbury and governor of Poitou.

Alison: He has incredible courage. He’s like a bouncy castle; very buoyant. He’s riding with a lot of highborn people. He’s awed by them but not overawed. He feels as if he’s in the right place. He has a good sense of his own worth. He’s very flexible and alert, responds not just in a chit-chat way but deeply and appropriately. He knows how to say the right thing at the right time and it comes easily to him. He’s alert and all his senses are awakened. He has dark hair, long cheeks, a strong nose. His clothes are intricate. His eyes look dark but inside they feel light. I am seeing the youth and the older man mingled. It is difficult for others to gauge what he’s thinking. He has very dark eyes; might be brown, might be blue.
There is a woman laughing and William is making her laugh by telling her jokes about the English being loutish and stupid. It’s probably Poitiers they are going to. The woman is Eleanor of Aquitaine. (Alison had several stabs at saying Poitiers, unprompted by me. She was unsure how to pronounce it, but got it in the end)

6 – Have you ever discovered a character in your research that you detested but had to include in your stories?

I don’ think I have ever detested a character. There are some I would rather not spend time with should it be possible to meet them in real life but even so they must have had moments when they were less detestable than others, or interesting facets to their personality I am not a fan of King John, although of course this may come from the fact that the characters I write about are not fans either! He deprived Fulke FitzWarin of his lands, selling them to someone else for half the price just to spite Fulke. He took William Marshal's sons hostage and fomented war in Ireland behind William’s back, threatening William's pregnant wife. Later on he took William Marshal's grandson hostage and seized Framlingham Castle. Generally speaking my characters had strong reason to dislike him. William Marshal, a man of great diplomacy, abandoned that diplomacy on his deathbed to tell John's son the young Henry III,that if he ever acted like some wicked ancestor, he wished him an early death. I have never warmed to King Stephen's eldest son Eustace, but I still can't say I detest him. Quite often the less agreeable characters with their different sets of complexities are just as interesting to write as the heroes and heroines. In THE SUMMER QUEEN, the first of my Eleanor novels, I found Louis VII and one of his courtiers Thierry de Galeran two of the latter type. You’d avoid them like the plague in the flesh, but to write about they are fascinating.

7 – What advice could you give to an aspiring author?

First and foremost write because you love writing. Write because you must. Enjoy exploring with your stories and your characters. By all means learn the basic nuts and bolts of the craft, but don't let yourself become hidebound by a rulebook. In writing, rules are more like Captain Barbossa’s comment in Pirates of the Caribbean. ’More like guidelines really.’ Also don't be in too much of a hurry to see your work in print. Serve your apprenticeship. Sometimes rejection is indeed because there is no room at the inn. Because the publisher has just taken on a book very similar to yours. Because the agent or editor doesn't recognise what a stunning talent you are. And sometimes it's because your work is not ready but you don't recognise it. Learn to be a good critic of your own work. That means finding the level you are at and the level of readers you want to pitch it to. And my advice for finding that out is to read widely and voraciously because it will give you a context for where you stand.

8 – Which author inspires you?
There are many, but when I was hopeful writer, I always read Dorothy Dunnett when trying to raise my game. She is in a league of her own, and I love her wonderful use of language to create scenes. I have always enjoyed the works of Sharon Kay Penman, Bernard Cornwell and Lindsey Davis.
As a reader, my tastes are very eclectic and I'll read gritty thrillers, historicals of all times and genres, horror stories, paranormal, literary, you name it. It's about entertainment, and knowledge while being entertained. I love the work of Terry Pratchett and Stephen King. Their awareness of their craft can’t be bettered.

9 – What is your favourite quotation?
I don't know that I have one when you put me on the spot! I can tell you a favourite poem that I feel is particularly pertinent to historical novelists. It's a poignant one by Tolkien and it's called ‘I sit beside the fire and think.’ You probably can't quote it all for copyright reasons, but I copied and pasted it from the Internet below, and if you can only quote a couple of lines from it in fair usage
Then I love the lines

in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.’

It pertains to my novels on Eleanor of Aquitaine. Every telling is different even if the season is the same.

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
In summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.

10 – At which event in history would you like to have been a fly on the wall?

Something hugely momentous would be the rolling away of the stone on the third day – Oh to be a fly on that stone - that would certainly answer some questions!

I'd like to go to a proper tournament and watch William Marshal at the height of his physical powers.

I’d also like to observe Stonehenge being used in its heyday.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Review - The Poison Tide by Andrew Williams

ISBN:         9781848545816
Publisher:   John Murray
Pages:       472
Price:         £9.79 via Amazon 
Released:   16 August 2012

Lieutenant Sebastian Wolff returns for another adventure in Andrew Williams’ latest novel, released yesterday.

It is 1915 and Europe is at war.  The latest assignment for Wolff is to discover the plans of a known Irish rebel who is using the pre-occupation of Britain’s war with Germany to organise a rebellion that will free Ireland from the yoke of English rule.  However, a conspiracy to sink British ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic is uncovered.  The trail takes Wolff from Berlin to America, where an even more sinister plot to develop a poisonous gas to be used against the British is uncovered.

Williams has created a series of novels, this being the third, which could be described as a “niche” product.  Set in the era of the First World War, Williams knowledge of the time, combined with a talent for story-telling, means his historical thrillers are compelling and extremely enjoyable.  Williams skilfully creates a character that is honest, ruthless and flawed. The author allows you to get under Wolff's skin and you can feel his dilemmas, his amoral behaviour with women and the steely determination with which he ensures each mission is successful.  The modern era of spycraft is being born and developed by the newly created Secret service Bureau; dead-drops and sewing tissue paper filled with sensitive information inside linings of coats are some of the imaginative ways Wolff smuggles his findings back to his superiors.

The Poison Tide is a thoroughly enjoyable read.  The technical and historical detail is unencumbered, allowing the reader to follow the plot without distraction.  I have always enjoyed spy novels and there are times when the antics of the hero are implausible, but this is not the case with “The Poison Tide”.  Williams has created a character that will appeal to a predominantly male audience, but I am sure women will see him as a early 20th century Jack Reacher and enjoy these novels too.

Sir Read-A-Lot gives “The Poison Tide” 4 crosses!

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Interview with a "Renegade" - Robyn Young talks to Sir Read-A-Lot

Robyn Young is the author of the highly successful "Brethren" trilogy.  Her current project is the telling of the story of Robert the Bruce.  The first instalment, "Insurrection" was, once again, an instant best seller and the second book, "Renegade" is launched on 30th August 2012.  I have been lucky enough to read an advanced copy and my review can be found here.

Robyn very kindly found time in her busy schedule to talk to me and gives an interesting insight into the world of a best-selling author of historical fiction.

  1. Your debut novel “Brethren” was an instant success and all your books have become best-sellers.  Who first inspired you to write and when did you realise you wanted to make a living from writing? 
·         My grandfather was probably the first person to inspire me, with a love of storytelling.  I have fond memories of holidays at my grandparents’, where my cousins and me would gather in the evenings and my grandfather would tell adventure stories where we were the main characters.  I continued this tradition, inventing my own narratives, and at school an enthusiastic English teacher encouraged me to set them to paper.  In my early teens, I began writing poetry and won several competitions, including one that saw one of my poems published in a national anthology.  I remember seeing my work in print for the first time.  I think that’s the point I knew I wanted to write for a living.

  1. The publishing world is very tough and with the advent of P.O.D, Amazon and other easy ways to publish novels electronically, how difficult was it to get an agent and a traditional publishing contract? 
·        It was a long, rocky road, as it is for most authors, although we all have different stories of how we got there in the end.  It took two years, several major rewrites and thirteen rejections before a literary agent signed me up for my first novel, BRETHREN.  After that I thought I’d made it – I had an agent and a Masters in Creative Writing from a top university.  Why wouldn’t I get a book deal?  Of course, reality kicked in and it would be another two years and more rejections before we struck gold and BRETHREN ended up in an auction with two publishing houses bidding for it.  All in all, from concept to final draft, that first novel was seven years in the making. 

  1. You did an MA in Creative Writing; is this something you felt you needed to do or was it something you wanted to do?  Would you recommend this route to most writers? 
·         It was a bit of both.  I’d done a foundation course at Sussex University, where I’d begun writing BRETHREN, and the structured support offered by a weekly class in those early years of writing was so beneficial I decided to continue with a Masters.  There is a sort of stigma attached to creative writing courses – a tendency to believe that it cannot, or should not be taught. But writing is a craft as much as an art and one of the most valuable aspects of both courses for me was feedback from my peers. One of the hardest, most vital things to learn is how to edit your own work. Working with others, deconstructing one another’s writing, asking the questions you constantly need to ask yourself – why this point of view, what does this dialogue offer, what about pace here, exposition there – teaches you to see where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Hemmingway called it having a built-in shit detector.  You don’t need to do a course to become a successful author certainly, although I know plenty who have (C.J. Sansom was in the year before me on the foundation course writing the first of his Shardlake novels).  It’s all down to the individual and where they are in the writing process and, even then, not every course will be beneficial – it’s often down to group dynamics.  I was fortunate to be in a group that worked well together, but not every class will lend itself to that. 

  1. How did you become interested in the medieval world and what inspired you to write the Brethren trilogy? 
·        Back in 1999 I was in a pub with two friends, who were talking about the Knights Templar.  I’d not heard of these so-called warrior monks before, but my interest was piqued.  Some time later I came across a book called The Trial of the Templars, by historian Malcolm Barber, a harrowing account of the dramatic downfall of this powerful medieval organisation.  I read it in an afternoon and by the end I knew I wanted to tell their story.  This was long before The Da Vinci Code hit the shelves and catapulted the Templars into the zeitgeist.

  1. Your current project tells the story of Robert the Bruce.  What made you decide to write about him? 
·        The INSURRECTION TRILOGY was born out of a research trip to Scotland, where I was working on REQUIEM, the final novel in the Templar series.  I’d spent three weeks on the road, travelling from battlegrounds and ivy-clad ruins, during which time one figure came striding out of the wild landscape and rich history – Robert Bruce.  He swept me off my feet and carried me into an epic story of bitter family feuds, two civil wars and the struggle for a crown.  There is none of the black and whiteness of William Wallace about Robert – he is a complex, enigmatic character, who offered a real challenge in the writing of his story.

  1.  How do you research your subject matter?  What are your favourite sources? 
·          I start by reading as many books as possible, during which time I write an enormous amount of notes, trying to piece the historical world together.  These will be a mixture of texts – ones that cover the broad era, biographies of my characters and then those that deal with the finer period details, such as food, travel, clothing, weapons and armour.  It’s about building up a picture.  Even if you don’t use half the things you research, it will come across in your writing as confidence and authenticity. Web-based research is getting better, but I still only use the Internet when I have a good enough grounding myself to know which sites are good.  I also try to visit as many of the locations as possible. I speak to historians and re-enactors about specific events or equipment and I like to try my hand at the physical aspects of my novels. For INSURRECTION, I was taught to ride by a skill-at-arms tutor. I’ve tried sword fighting, used crossbows and done extensive work with birds of prey, which have, I believe, added colour beyond the book-based details.

  1. Your Twitter profile says you are a “newbie screenwriter”.  Does this mean your novels are making their way onto the silver screen? 
·        We’ve certainly had a few nibbles on the line, so to speak, but no firm plans yet.  My “newbie screenwriter” tag refers to a project I’ve been working on with two fellow writers over the past year – a WWII screenplay.  It’s been quite a departure, and not just in terms of period.  Having colleagues after twelve years working alone has been a breath of fresh air.  We’ll have to see what happens, but if things go well I hope we’ll continue to work together.

  1. What advice would you give to someone like me, an unpublished writer working hard to finish their manuscript who wishes to turn their dream of winning a publishing contract into a reality? 
·         My agent always said, in this regard, that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  I think he’s right.  There aren’t many hard and fast rules when it comes to trying to get a traditional contract – as I said, authors have many different stories of how they got there.  I know one writer, for instance, who snared a contract on first try on a partial manuscript and another who made it after sixty rejections.  That said, there are undoubtedly a few things you can do to help your chances, or at least not shoot yourself in the foot, most of which are covered in a few excellent books.  The best I read was Carole Blake’s From Pitch to Publication.  Also, the Writer’s Handbook and Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook are well worth getting – they include useful tips as well as listing all agencies in the UK, including details of what to send.  When you do send work out, make sure you’re sending it to the right person, that you’ve included everything the agent requires, no more no less, and that it’s the absolute best it can be.  You can be sure if an agent isn’t hooked in the first page or so, your manuscript has had it.  Covering letters and synopses are just as important to get right.  For some great tips on these, and a damn good laugh, check out the brilliant -

  1. Fun Question – which three characters would you invite to dinner and why? 
·        Edward I, because he’d have a decent supply of Gascony wine.  Robert Bruce could bring the venison and answer a few questions I have, and William Wallace could make a daring raid on the local shops for anything we’d forgotten.  I’d probably have to up my house insurance though, with those three in the same room.

  1. Fun Question – at which event in history would you like to be a fly on the wall and why? 
·         I’d like to have witnessed Edward I’s coronation in Westminster Abbey, for the grand spectacle of it and the feast that would have followed.  It is said wine flowed through the conduit in Cheapside for the people to drink.

Find out more about Robyn Young at 

Review - Renegade by Robyn Young

ISBN:         9780340963678
Publisher:   Hodder & Stoughton
Pages:       448
Price:         £7.87 via Amazon when pre-ordered, saving £9.12
Released:   30 August 2012

Would you be able to mask your heart’s desire in such a way that your closest allies and greatest enemies believed you to be a turncoat and traitor?  Could you keep inside you the truest, most noble calling and yet appear to have cast that destiny aside to curry favour with a king you know to be cruel and unworthy?  Robert The Bruce is faced with such a dilemma in “Renegade”, the second book of Robyn Young’s Insurrection trilogy.

“Renegade” begins shortly after the insurrection led by William Wallace has been subdued.  Robert has fled the court of Edward, King of England and betrayed the knights of a secret brotherhood, into which he was inducted.  He begins to form a powerbase at his ancestral home in Scotland but is soon forced to hide in Ireland when it becomes too dangerous.  The search for a mystical object, the Staff of Malachy, takes him to Ireland and King Edward sends a mercenary to hunt Robert down and kill him.  The failed assassination attempt reveals an unpalatable truth, causing him to return to Scotland where he is met by his most loyal friend, James Steward.  He convinces Robert that the best way to secure his lands is to swear fealty to Edward once more and, to all concerned, appear to be committed to Edward’s conquest of Scotland.   

Robyn Young weaves an engrossing story into an impeccably researched framework which ignites your imagination.  Her talent for writing is exceptional; her characters are alive, even though they have been dead for 800 years and you can smell the Greek Fire, launched from Edward’s siege engines, as it explodes into a castle’s walls. 

The sign of an excellent book is, in my opinion, one that captivates you from the first page and keeps you in its grip until the final sentence.  Once again, Robyn Young has produced an exceptional novel that is sure to be a bestseller, proving beyond doubt that she is one of the best writers, of any genre, around today.

Sir Read-A-Lot gives “Renegade” 5 crosses!

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Giveaway Winner & Coming Soon!

Well, what a week!  The Olympics have taken the whole country by storm and the sunny weather has been replaced by more rain.  I have some really exciting articles being prepared and some amazing interviews & giveaways that you will really want to win.

Last week, I published a review of Zoe Saadia's "At Road's End" and she very kindly offered a copy as a competition.  I can announce that the winner is MARSHA LAMBERT!

August 30th sees the publication of Robyn Young's much anticipated second novel about Robert the Bruce, Renegade.  Last week, Robyn contacted me and I am delighted to have been chosen by her to review Renegade prior to it's release!  Robyn has also very kindly agreed to an exclusive interview with me & I am really excited about this - I hope you are too.

The big names keep coming later this month but I am keeping mum as if I share all my good news with you, it might distract you from the Olympics!  Keep following me on FB, Twitter and by email to ensure you never miss a thing.