Sylvia Nilsen, well known in the Camino world for her ‘amaWalker blog’ is a South African freelance writer who has been published in numerous local and international publications.
She has worked as a research agent and editor for a UK-based travel guide publisher and produced several African city and country guides.
Sylvia has walked over 5,000 km of pilgrimage trails in Europe including Paris to Spain, the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port and Roncesvalles to Santiago, from Lourdes to Pamplona, el Ferrol to Santiago, Santiago to Finisterre and from Switzerland to Rome on the Via Francigena. She also walked from Durban to Cape Town as part of the ‘Breaking Free’ team in aid of abused women and children. Sylvia has served as a volunteer hospitalero in Spain and is a Spanish accredited hospitalero trainer having trained over 40 people to serve as volunteers in Spain. She was the Regional Co-ordinator for the Confraternity of St James in South Africa from 2003 to 2010.
In 2009 she started amaWalkers Camino (Pty) Ltd and takes small groups of pilgrims on three weeks walks of the Camino Frances in Spain.
Stephanie: Hello, Sylvia! Thank you for chatting with me today. Your book, Pilgrim Footprints on the Sands of Time is in my wish list. Please tell me a little about your book.
Sylvia: Pilgrim Footprints is the first book in a two part series. The first is set in the 12th century when Christian pilgrimages were in their heyday. Besides the mendicant pilgrim, upper class pilgrims, ecclesiastic and military pilgrims (like the Knights Templars) there were many penitential pilgrims on the trails, sent to far away shrines to earn forgiveness for their sins and time spent in purgatory. The main characters in the book fall into the last category.
When Thomas Becket was murdered by four Knights, including Sir Reginald FitzUrse in 1160, King Henry ordered his brother Sir Robert, his wife and their niece Alicia to journey to the tomb of Saint James in Spain to restore the family name. William, a local healer is secretly in love with Alicia and is overjoyed when the family asks him to accompany them and their servants on the long and dangerous journey to Spain. They face many adversities, dangers and an attempted murder on the road to Santiago. On their way back, events occur that changes their lives forever.
There is a common thread throughout the story – first mentioned on page 17 – that finally reaches a climax and revelation on page 379.
A gypsy tells the main protagonists early on in the story that their souls are destined to be together but only when the flaming star returns in its eleventh visitation. This leaves the story open for a sequel, set in the 20th (Haley’s Comet returned in 1986) and 21st centuries.
Stephanie: Your title and book cover first drew me to your story. First impressions are so important when it comes to the overall layout of the book. How did you come up with the title and did you have a hand in the design of the cover?
Sylvia: I love Longfellow and his poem the Psalm of Life was evocative of a pilgrim story. I used one verse to open each chapter in the book. For over one thousand-five-hundred years, pilgrims have left their footprints on pilgrimage trails. Mine leave their footprints on the sands of time as well.
I was very fortunate when Jenny Q of Historical Editorial agreed to take on the design of the cover as a project. She sourced a picture of the perfect couple and incorporated the signs and symbols of the Santiago pilgrimage into the design.
Stephanie: Who are the fictional characters in your story?
Sylvia: The main characters are relatives of the ringleader who murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury cathedral. Lord Robert and Lady FitzUrse, their niece Alicia, whose mother was a FitzUrse, their two servants Leonard and Maria, and the main protagonist William Beaumont, a young healer who lives in Dartford England are the main characters. There is, of course, also a villain in the story!
Stephanie: Will you please tell your readers a little about this period in history your story is based on?
Sylvia: The 12th century was a turbulent time in the history of England, France and Spain. Islam was on the rise and it was also the peak era for Christian pilgrimages to shrines scattered across Europe, from Jerusalem and Rome to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The holy mount in Jerusalem was occupied by the Muslims, Rome was extremely political and dangerous to visit and the most visited shrine in Christendom became Santiago de Compostela where the remains of James the Greater were entombed in the city names after him – Sant Iago. My story is based on a pilgrimage from England to Santiago in 1178.
Stephanie: What are the challenges in writing Historical Fiction and how extensive is your research?
Sylvia: The ‘New World’ had not yet been discovered in the 12th century and there were many things that we now take for granted worldwide that had not yet been introduced to Europe. For instance food, like potatoes, corn, tomatoes, pumpkin and peppers were brought back from the New World in the 16th century. Coffee and tobacco were also introduced at that time. One has to be careful not to include any of these in a 12th century story.
As part of the research, I walked from Paris to Santiago – over 1800 km – in two stages, following in the footsteps of the characters in my story. I was able to make an appointment with the curator of the medieval gallery in the Museum of London and saw many medieval pilgrimage souvenirs and badges. Because our local libraries didn’t have many books on medieval, European pilgrimages, I had to buy a number of academic books on the subject and trawl the Internet for articles on the subject.
Stephanie: Where in your home do you like to write? What is your average weekly schedule in regards to writing?
Sylvia: I have a lovely little office, away from the main part of the house, and that is where I retreat to when I feel like writing.
Stephanie: Do you use outlines or do you just write?
Sylvia: I do both – imagine an outline, a character, a scene, an ending, a beginning, something to include, a high point, a low point, and then write. I keep paper and pencil next to my bed and often scribble and idea that might come to me in the middle of the night! I was taught that writing on unlined paper was the most creative but I prefer using the computer with its spell-check, immediate access to the web to check facts and the ability to cut and paste paragraphs and sentences.
Stephanie: What are some of the other books you have written?
Sylvia: I have 6 other books, all pilgrimage related, 3 published in paperback and 3 available on Kindle only.
Stephanie: Where can readers buy your book, Pilgrim Footprints on the Sands of Time?
Sylvia: It is available from most online bookstores such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Waterstones and also from the publishers, Pilgrimage Publications.
You are welcome.
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Review at From L.A. to LA
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Spotlight at Passages to the Past