Interview with B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Author Charlene Newcomb

Charlene Newcomb-BRAG

Hello Charlene! I am so delighted to be talking to you today about your B.R.A.G. Medallion Book, Men of the Cross. Before we get started talking about your book, please tell me a little about yourself.

Hi Stephanie! I was born and raised in South Carolina, but left home at 18 to “join the Navy and see the world.” That “world” ended up being duty stations in Florida, California, Texas, and Maryland. My job as a communications technician led to a post-Navy career in academic libraries, where I’ve worked since the early 1980s. Somewhere in there, I had 3 children – now all grown and independent – completed a B.A. in U.S. History and a Masters in Library and Information Science, and moved to Kansas. I started writing in 1993 and published a series of short stories in the Star Wars universe. Due to life’s curve balls, I didn’t publish my first novel, Keeping the Family Peace, until 2012. My love of history has taken me happily to the 12th century. Men of the Cross, published in April 2014, is book I of my Battle Scars series. Book II, For King and Country, will be published later this year.

Your life has been full of adventure and still is it looks like! How neat! I’m really looking forward to hearing more about your other books and the one you have coming out later this year. For now, let’s get started on talking about, Men of the Cross. When I first saw the cover and title of your book, I literally almost jumped out of my desk chair! Seriously. What a great cover and titles! And the premise! *love* I’m a history nut. Please tell your audience a little about your book.

I have to admit I love my cover design too! Men of the Cross is an epic novel of love and war. It started life as a short story called Battle Scars. My writers group and I still laugh about the time I told them I might be able to stretch the short story into a novella. The short story became the end of the novel. Before I knew it, I had 99,000 words and was well into planning Book II. At that point, I realized I wanted to use Battle Scars as a series title. With the novel set against the backdrop of the Third Crusade from 1190 to 1193 and men “taking the Cross” to free Jerusalem, I found Book I’s title: Men of the Cross.

The novel is an historical adventure that traces two knights’ journey from England to the Holy Land and back. I recall reading an interview with George R.R. Martin and Bernard Cornwell in which Cornwell says the historical novel “has two stories – the big one and the little one – and the writer flips them.” In Men of the Cross, Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade is the big one – those who are familiar with the time period will know how that ended. The little story has two themes: war’s impact on a young knight – post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) – and forbidden love. Can there be a happily ever after?

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I absolutely LOVE your backdrop of the Third Crusade. Tell me why you chose this point in history to write about and why the Third Crusade?

Let me admit right up front: I majored in U.S. History in college and enrolled in a couple of survey courses in world and pre-20th century European history. I knew about the Crusades, but remembered sparse details. Ever since I was a kid, television and movies have sparked my curiosity to learn more about historical figures and events. I was the one who’d grab a volume of the World Book Encyclopedia from the shelf to read more about a subject. (That was back in the dark ages when all we had were print books.) About 8 years ago, I saw episodes of a Robin Hood BBC show that featured Richard the Lionheart. The show may have been filled with historical anachronisms, but the images of war’s impact on young men and the characters’ loyalty to the king and to each other were powerful. My exploration of Richard I and the Third Crusade began there. I was hooked by one of the first books I discovered: Chronicle of the Third Crusade : A translation of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi. This contemporary ‘diary’ and ones by Ambroise and Roger de Hoveden, provide a play-by-play (well, close to one) of the events of the time, from the horrific to the humorous, to politics, and to personalities. Saladin had his chroniclers, too, which provided insights into Richard and other Christian leaders from the Muslim point of view.

As I mentioned, I had the novel’s ending – my original short story – long before I started plotting the rest of the tale. Does the story choose the writer? I had two knights recently returned from the Holy Land, their king captured by former allies. They’d left war behind, only to face the king’s enemies in their homeland. I needed to tell how they came to that point. This type of tale is timeless, isn’t it? It could have taken place in any era, but my fascination with the Lionheart, his family, religion, politics, and the logistics of moving a medieval army thousands of miles were at the soul of the story, and my heart was with Henry de Grey and Stephan l’Aigle.

War scenes can be tricky to write, I think. Often times a challenge for some. I tried to write one a few times and realized it wasn’t for me. Did you have any challenges in writing certain war scenes? How do you get in the mindset of doing so?

The battles of the Third Crusade provided a variety of situations – sieges, skirmishes, major attacks, and at least two fictional reconnaissance missions I created to beef up the tension and conflict in the novel. Still, the challenge for me is writing a battle scene that is different from the previous one. What is unique about each one – the point of view, the location and terrain, the tactics used by each side in the conflict. I’m still learning how to do this, but I try to visualize the scene as if I’m directing a movie. I may start with a grand sweep of the field of battle, but it’s important for the reader to connect emotionally so I hone in on the POV character, for example my main character Henry. He’s sitting atop his warhorse. What does he see, smell, hear, feel? Pull the camera back to see the knights charge. There are different sounds and blood and death. Draw in closer to the POV character, a sword’s length away. I can only imagine what it must have been like, and hope I’ve captured it and taken the reader to that place.

What was the required skill men needed to have to survive the crusades?

Was it skill, or luck? Skills helped, but being in the wrong place at the wrong time could be deadly. Disease and illness plagued the armies. Historian David Miller writes that during the siege of Acre “more Crusaders died from sickness than in military action.” King Richard and Philip of France both suffered from Arnaldia, a painful and potentially deadly illness characterized by fever and the loss of hair and fingernails. If men didn’t die from sickness, they had to contend with heat exhaustion, bitter cold in the winter of 1191/92, and damp and wet weather than rotted their food and rusted their mail. Reading about the harsh conditions makes you wonder how they survived.

But you asked about skills… Knights were skilled horsemen and trained with sword and lance for years, most as squires beginning around the age of twelve. Many had tourney experience where they’d honed their skills. The infantry was composed of foot soldiers with maces, axes, pikes and short swords and archers with bows or crossbows. Given that some had voluntarily taken the Cross, their mastery of the weaponry might have varied.

Undoubtedly, Richard’s skills as a military commander and strategist kept many men alive. Knights are accustomed to the charge. Saladin employed hit-and-run tactics to taunt and draw them out. In the aftermath of a typical charge, knights are separated and the fighting becomes more one-on-one. Saladin’s troops outnumbered the crusaders and could quickly overwhelm them. Richard observed this in skirmishes in the first few days of the march from Acre to Jaffa; and, he did not want to deplete his forces. He placed his most experienced divisions – the Templars and the Hospitallers – at the van- and rearguards of his column and ordered all his knights not to break ranks. They marched in tight formation: baggage train on the seaward side, the infantry on the landward flank, and knights between the two. The Saracen cavalry skillfully fired bow while charging. Their arrows were marginally effective against armor, but the crusaders’ horses were very vulnerable and many were killed. The deadliest fighting took place at Arsuf. Richard had expected a full scale assault there. He kept his troops marching despite increased attacks by the enemy. Oftentimes, this meant the foot soldiers were marching backwards. The attacks on the rearguard were so heavy that the Hospitaller knights broke from the formation to counterattack. Richard ordered most of his knights to join in the assault and after brutal fighting, they took the day, leaving an estimated 7,000 Saracens and 700 of their own dead. More crusaders would have died if not for Richard’s leadership.

The call to Crusade brought former enemies together in shaky alliances. Can you talk a bit about the politics of the time and how you used it in your story?

Pope Gregory VIII’s call led Christian rulers to put aside their territorial wars to join forces to free Jerusalem. The largest contingents were those serving the kings of France and England. Long before their forces arrive in the Holy Land, the two rulers were at odds. My main character, Henry de Grey, has a very black and white view of the world when the novel opens. He is confused and appalled when the king of France’s refuses to help King Richard’s troops against attacks in Sicily (long before they get to the Holy Land). The capture of Messina is Henry’s first taste of battle, and it is against ‘allies.’ He had taken the Cross to fight Saladin’s troops.

Richard comes to an agreement with the Sicilian king, Tancred, which inflames Henvy VI’s dislike of Richard. Henry, who becomes Holy Roman Emperor in 1191, is married to Constance. She is the legitimate heir to the Sicilian throne. Henry is also a strong supporter of Leopold, Duke of Austria, Richard’s bitter enemy after the fall of Acre. Leopold and his troops leave the Crusade after Richard insults him by having his banner stripped from the city walls. It gets messier… There were also rivals claiming the throne of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The French supported Conrad de Montferrat (who happened to be Duke Leopold’s cousin); Richard supported Guy de Lusignan, who was king because of his marriage to the queen of Jerusalem. De Montferrat was assassinated and Richard was accused of being involved. Meanwhile, on the march from Acre towards Jerusalem, Richard must contend with the contrary French who report to the Duke of Burgundy. King Philip has abandoned the mission and returned to France where he begins plotting with Richard’s brother John.

Duke Leopold comes back to haunt Richard. He didn’t forget the insult: Richard is captured by Leopold’s soldiers. In Bavaria and on his way home, Richard’s daring attempt to evade capture with the help of Henry de Grey and his companions is a highlight of the final chapters of Men of the Cross. Why had Richard chosen the overland route? Genoese and Pisan ships had been hired to intercept him; Toulouse, a former enemy, had allied with Aragon and Catalonia closing off ports from Provence to northern Spain.

Arrested in the outskirts of Vienna a few days before Christmas 1192, Richard is first held by Leopold, and then turned over to Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor. Richard’s brother John and King Philip plot to usurp Richard’s throne. They’d offered Henry VI silver to keep Richard imprisoned. And Philip helps finance an attempted invasion of England, which is where Men of the Cross ends.

One last note: Richard also jilted Alys, King Philip’s sister, to marry Berengaria of Navarre in 1191 while he was on the way to the Holy Land. Though he’d been betrothed to Alys since 1169, he chose Berengaria in a move that helped safeguard the southern borders of his kingdom on the continent.

Is Henry de Grey a fictional or real person?

Henry is a fictional character from fictional town of Greyton in Lincolnshire. Twenty years old, he is naive about war and politics, strong in his faith, and passionate about the call to free Jerusalem from Saladin’s forces. He had been knighted shortly after Richard’s coronation in September 1189, and had argued with his father about his decision to take the Cross. He leaves behind fouteen-year-old Alys, his betrothed.

What can readers expect in the romance parts of your story?

Take one experienced ‘man of the world’ who has fallen in and out of sexual liaisons since he was a teenager and insists that men like himself cannot fall in love. Add to that a young, God-fearing man raised to believe in the sanctity of marriage and the teachings of the Church on sin who begins to question those beliefs. Stir in the Church’s stance on same-sex relationships in the Middle Ages. The result is tension and conflict. Forbidden love. Yes, Men of the Cross deals with a deep, abiding friendship that eventually leads to love between two men. There are a few sex scenes that aren’t overly graphic – this is not erotica – the scenes range from tender to playful, maybe a bit steamy, and passionate and emotional. The story is about the relationship, not the sex.

This is life. It’s part of the human condition. Then, as now, you might expect that in an army of 15,000-20,000, there would be men who preferred male sexual companionship and that some men did love each other, despite the Church’s zero tolerance and the possibility of eternal damnation. I have a post on medieval man, sex and mortal sin on my blog for anyone interested in looking at some of my research on canon and secular law:

Your research relied on a lot of biographies of King Richard, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Richard’s brother John. Could you share some of those titles with us?

The translated primary sources I mentioned earlier (and others listed on my Reference list,, provided the skeleton for Men of the Cross. Biographies by Gillingam (Richard the Lionheart), Weir (Eleanor of Aquitaine: a life), and Appleby (John, King of England) provided more insights into the historical figures. I also found David Miller’s Richard the Lionheart: the mighty crusader filled with excellent logistical information about Richard’s army. The contemporary chronicles told me what Richard did, but the biographies and other works provide a deeper and broader historical background.

You mentioned to me that in your book blurb you note that the novel includes the seeds of a new Robin Hood origins story and that you are only one of dozens of authors who have placed Robin as a contemporary of Richard and John. In the book, Allan and Little John are young teens, camp-followers-turned servants-turned-squires as the story progresses. I’m curious, readers have read so many interpretations of Robin Hood and his origins. How does this play an important role in your story?

In my original short story I had a Robin Hood-type character, a knight who was known for his skills with bow.* My writers group encouraged me to make him the man who would become Robin Hood. Initially, Robin was merely a bridge between King Richard and the two main characters (MCs), Henry and Stephan. Robin was part of the king’s inner circle, which gave me opportunities to have the MCs not only observe, but also interact with Richard, and become trusted knights, which plays heavily into the novel’s climax. I only planned to hint that Robin would be the man of legend by tying him to a girl named Marian back in England. Quite by accident, two young thieves appeared on the scene. Their appearance was intended as a one shot, but when I read the scene to my writers group, all three said “I hope we see more of them.” By that time, I was certain I had a series in the works. The teenagers suddenly had names – Allan and Little John – and both would be intricately tied to the knights in Men of the Cross. They serve them, provide comic relief, and they are wise beyond their years. Their observations of the events and the people, both actual historical figures and my fictional characters, and their actions, provide hints about the men they will become, these ‘Merry Men’ a.k.a. Robin Hood’s gang. This is my vision of the origins of these characters, and I’ll be developing their back stories and their story arcs significantly in Book II of Battle Scars.

(*Yes, I know English knights do not shoot bow in a cavalry charge, but this is (or will be) Robin Hood, and it’s fiction. He shoots once, maybe twice, and then draws sword or lance.)

Why historical fiction?

For me, the joy of writing historical fiction is taking an existing world of real people, places, events, and things and seeing that world through the eyes of a fictional character. Because Henry de Grey didn’t actually exist, I am free to imagine what he does as the events of the Third Crusade unfold.

How long did it take for you to write this story and what was your process?

As I mentioned, Men of the Cross began as a short story, which I penned in 2009. I was busy with other projects and didn’t start work on the novel until 2012. It took me close to two years to complete, during which time I was doing final edits on my first novel and working full time.

I structured the novel in 3 parts: the journey to the Holy Land (March 1190-June 1191), the time in the Holy Land (June 1191-October 1192), the journey back to England and subsequent events (Oct 1192-March 1193). Using the Itinerarium, I identified the significant events my fictional knights would be involved with, determined what plot points I needed to include to drive the knights’ story forward and build tension, and then wove their history into the ‘real’ history. I started with a bare-bones outline, i.e., a list of key scenes that included a few bullet points, and added to it as I wrote. I keep a spreadsheet that includes dates/events (both real and fictional ones), and also maintain character templates. My writers group provided feedback on every chapter along the way. Based on their critiques and two rounds of editing, I sent the manuscript to two beta readers. With their comments, I did a third round of edits, and then handed that version to my writers group for additional editorial review. Their last comments came to me in Jan./Feb. 2014, and I published Men of the Cross at the end of April.

How did you discover indieBRAG?

I belong to a Facebook group called “English Historical Fiction Authors.” One of the regular contributors to the group announced she’d won a B.R.A.G. Medallion. I checked out the indieBRAG website. Impressed by their selection criteria, I submitted Men of the Cross. Thank you to the indieBRAG reviewers who made me a B.R.A.G. honoree. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Where can readers buy your book?

Men of the Cross is available in print and for Kindle on Amazon; for Nook; Smashwords

my website

I can also be found on Facebook TwitterGoodreads

Thank you, Charlene! It was a pleasure chatting with you! Please visit with me again soon.

A message from BRAG:

We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Charlene Newcomb, who is the author of, Men of the Cross, our medallion honorees at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Men of the Cross, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.


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