The Importance Of Subsidiary Characters In The Novel With Darius Stransky

As writers and readers you are all aware of the main character (MC) in the books you read.

The MC is the one who gets all the best lines. The shining star in the firmament of the book; the one who takes centre stage and hogs the limelight; the one who gets the bouquet at the end of the performance; the one everybody talks about. But consider this; a novel is not a one-man show is it?

Most writers have a framework to work to. A plot that employs many devious stratagems to keep their readers enthralled. Within the confines of a novel (most novels) are many subsidiary characters and woe-betide the writer who fails to listen to the voices of their supporting cast. Let me give you an example …

The King's Jew Book OneIn the first book of “The King’s Jew” on the evening of Wednesday, September 9th in the year 1238 (there’s a clue to the setting of the novel) we meet a minor character called Mathew. He’s a fifteen-year old soldier in the service of an influential lord.

Mathew enters stage left (to use a theatrical term) in Chapter Three; page 9 of the paperback version. His opening lines (as written by the Director – me) are as follows … “He’s killed the lord’s pig, Robert. He’ll have our guts for this. I said the rope wasn’t strong enough!”

Now, dear reader, I won’t bore you with the gory details of this unassuming opening remark but, suffice to say, I envisaged Mathew as a walk on / walk off character. Sort of a trainee actor, a youngster who fulfilled his part, read his lines, got paid and went back to wherever he came from. Simple eh?

Imagine my surprise when in the timescale of the novel, fourteen years later in Chapter Twenty-two on Tuesday, April 9th 1252 on page 101 Mathew returns. WTF! Who invited him? He certainly wasn’t in my mind!

Let me explain – this part of the story required a letter to be delivered to our then thirteen-year old MC urging him to undertake a journey. A group of men had been sent to fetch him and the leader of this gang of roughnecks turned out to be the now twenty-nine year old Mathew! He appeared unbidden in my train of thought and there was no way I could refuse him this second chance of fame. It was as if he was taking part in an impromptu audition.

During Mathew’s journey with my then young MC I learned a lot about Mathew. In a world where the Christian religion is fundamental to everyone’s life and the reality of Hell was as real to thirteenth century man as the fact that birds fly and ducks swim, Mathew stood apart.

He mocks the Cistercians at Beaulieu Abbey (I didn’t know that until he refused to take his gloves off when offered a bowl of water to ‘purify’ him before entering the Abbey) He admonishes the brother by saying; “You stay here, little brother and pray for our immortal souls, for mine is in sore need of intercession. Pray loudly now for Heaven is far away for one such as me.”

The thing is, although I wrote those words it was Mathew who spoke them. He spoke them to me, the writer. Unbidden, this subsidiary character was carving out a roll for himself. Indeed, Mathew was writing his own unique script and there was nothing I could do to stop him!

Believe me I tried to limit Mathew’s effect on my MC. Sounds as if I’m looking for a get-out clause doesn’t it? Really, I tried but an interesting subsidiary character sometimes will never be silenced and as my novel continued I realised the effect he was having on my MC.

The King's Jew Book TwoTalking of MC’s – My main character is a thirteenth-century person named Cristian Gilleson. “The King’s Jew quartet revolves around him and his ‘friend’ the future King of England, Edward the First. Other main characters are real people; the Earl of Gloucester, Gilbert de Clare; Edward’s father King Henry III, Simon de Montfort the rebel leader of the Second Baron’s War and many more. So how did a rough tough, gruff, violent, blasphemous man such as Mathew elbow his way into the script?

We next meet Mathew in Bordeaux in Chapter forty-one, page 235, on Tuesday, June 22nd, 1255 (notice Mathew disappeared for three years yet here he is again!) I recall when writing that particular chapter that I was shocked when he turned up again but Mathew was by now a man with a mission – a mission to take care of and serve our MC, Cristian Gilleson. Is there no stopping this rebellious character I thought?

And sure enough there was no way to rein this character in. By his actions he cemented the bond between himself and our then sixteen-year old Cristian and, by his actions and examples began to shape our hero’s life and attitude.

There is an old saying that goes as follows “Many are called but few are chosen.”

Bloody hell! I just checked the source of those words and it seems that Mathew is looking over my shoulder and manipulating this humble novelist as we speak! The above ‘saying’ is taken from the Bible, Mathew 22:14. My subsidiary character now has me quoting his namesake!

But let’s return to the phrase “Many are called but few are chosen”. In the context of this article I urge you writers out there to take heed of it. In essence just think of the person doing the ‘calling’ as one of your minor characters. He or she is calling out to you and begging you to bring them deeper into your novel. Such vociferous subsidiary characters need to be listened to; need to be ‘chosen’. I urge you to listen to their plaintive calls and allow them into your work for it will be all the better for it.

So what happened to Mathew I hear you ask? Did he take centre stage for a while and then disappear back to the chorus line? The answer is simple and can be found in books two, three and four of “The King’s Jew” series.

I will however tell you that Mathew has a greater role to play in the subsequent books. By his actions in book one he cajoled me, conned me, and threatened me in no uncertain manner to let him stay in the novel. Mathew is not the sort of man you’d like for an enemy yet he is loyal to those who match up to his uncertain moral standards. I like Mathew, he is my friend and I would drink with him in a crowded bar in the full and certain knowledge that it would be a night to remember.

In summation I beg you writers out there to listen to the voices in your head when writing, keep your options open and an eye out for new up and coming players.

As for you readers out there you may never know the extent of the effect that a subsidiary character has had on the MC. It takes two to tango and it is the sum total of ALL the players that lead to a successful production.

PS – Mathew was born in 1233 and died in ….? That is one aspect of the books that I have not yet finalised. I have been dreading writing Mathew out of the series for such a long time which I think may be the reason that I’m delaying publishing the final book in the series. Don’t ask me to kill off my friend, let him live a while longer in my mind. I can tell you this though … it will be a death the likes that few have ever seen and will echo down the ages for time evermore.

Mathew wrote those last 21 words! He’s at it again, bless him!

 ENDS

 BIO of Darius Stransky

Darius Stransky

Darius Stransky spends far too much time in the thirteenth century. Prior to that he has been a weekly columnist, broadcaster, journalist, teacher, un-civil servant and many things in-between. Part English Gypsy, part Irish he remains mixed up and loves every minute of his life. He lives in Cheshire, England. The main thing about Darius is that he has lots of time for readers and writers. If you need any help just give him a SHOUT. Oh and he likes real beer and real people – well most people. Cats, yeah he likes cats because they are quiet and solitary. Bit like Darius really!

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Link to The King’s Jew Book One

Link to The King’s Jew Book Two

You can find him on Facebook as Darius Stransky

 

Characters in Motion with Derek Birks

From the Rebels and Brothers series… may I introduce Lady Eleanor Elder – the she-wolf who never stops moving.

As Paul Bennett, of the Hoover Book Review, remarked on Facebook recently: “Eleanor Elder has to be one of the toughest women in fiction.”

Eleanor has proven to be one of the most popular characters in the Rebels and Brothers series, set during the Wars of the Roses. Perhaps that is because she embodies the fighting spirit but also because the reader just knows that, when Eleanor is there, something unpredictable and exciting is going to happen. She is prone to outbursts of spectacular anger but she is also frighteningly and somehow, endearingly, loyal.

With stark red hair and piercing green eyes, hers is a stunning, but harsh, beauty. It is indeed a mesmerising beauty, but it masks a tortured soul for Eleanor is a fundamentally flawed character. Eleanor is fierce, that’s the only word for it. Even if you are on her side you would reckon that fierce is a pretty appropriate description.  In her relentless determination to survive and protect her own, she will shrug off any amount of physical pain and she will overcome even the most heart-breaking of losses. Throughout the series, Eleanor’s capacity for survival is tested about as far as it can be and there are times when only courage and sheer willpower keep her and other members of the Elder household alive.

Feud BRAGWhen the Rebels and Brothers story begins in Feud, she is only fifteen years old and the youngest of four siblings. She is motherless and soon to be fatherless and everything she has ever heard about her mother suggests that she takes after her. She is a wild child who has run with the boys for so long that she is almost out of control.

When we first encounter Eleanor near the start of Feud she is already very much in motion as she tries to evade a group of men led by a member of the rival Radcliffe family:

She seized upon their doubts, running at them, twisting this way and that and turning her blade on any man who got too close. Several tried to disarm her but clutched handfuls of air as she moved rapidly around them, stabbing at them and using her swift, lithe movement to wrong-foot them. Cornered once more on the edge of the riverbank, she thrust out towards an unprotected neck and was rewarded by a spurt of blood splashing onto her face. She smiled grimly as her victim fell to the ground, blood pouring from his wound as his comrades tried to wrest her lethal blade away. She broke from their grasp once more, her confidence growing.

One man caught her arm and she raked the knife across his chest. They were chasing shadows but there were so many of them she couldn’t get clear. An outstretched foot tripped her to her knees but she rolled and hacked at the forest of legs that surrounded her. She raised the knife to strike again but a boot kicked it from her hand and she stared up into the face of Richard Radcliffe. At once she sprang to her feet and threw herself at him, clawing at him until he punched her hard in the chest and stomach. Only then did she drop to the ground but she leapt up again and snarled at her adversaries like a wounded she-wolf, blazing eyes frantically seeking an escape route. She looked desperately towards the river but the blows rained in upon her from all sides and, with a final, bitter scream, she succumbed.

So, not only does she know what to do with sharp, pointy things but she is more than ready to do it.

A Traitors Fate BRAGAt the start of the second book, A Traitor’s Fate, Eleanor has been through the mill and the reader knows it. At the age of twenty, she is more self-aware, but no more cautious. She has returned to her roots in the Yorkshire dales and likes nothing better than to roam hillside and beck in the valley of her birth.

Eleanor Elder stood naked on the ledge staring down at her reflection in the still waters of the pool below. Thank God for a place she could be alone, just herself – well, almost alone. She was twenty years old, unmarried and the mother of a two year old son. For a lady of gentle birth, this should have meant misery but Eleanor cared nothing for such matters. What did cause her some concern was what she saw in the stark reflection: thick, flabby thighs and a slack belly – how far was she now from the lithe, sleek girl she had been only a few years before? She forced herself to look down at her breasts, scarred forever by the slash of a Radcliffe sword. There were other wounds too, any one of which might have killed her, yet here she was, still alive.

She shivered, took a breath and dived into the pool.

Kingdom of rebels BRAGEleanor’s relationship with her older sister, Emma, is a little complicated. They are chalk and cheese: where Eleanor is brash and unconventional, Emma is quiet and organised. She has run their father’s household from an early age and sees Eleanor as a nuisance – a piece that does not fit. As time goes on, the sisters often find themselves in rival camps but yet they are still sisters and can call upon each other for help. As Eleanor says in book three, Kingdom of Rebels:

“I always thought that we were poor friends, but rather better sisters…”

By the final book of the series, The Last Shroud, Eleanor has a taste of peace and happiness:

Eleanor Elder dozed contentedly outside the cottage, drinking in the scents and sounds of summer. Bees hummed around the flower heads, a pair of blackbirds scratched in the long grass and from the nearby forest came the rhythmic echo of Ragwulf’s axe upon oak. She fancied the stroke of his axe matched the lazy beat of her heart and smiled a guilty smile.

He had been away in the morning, further up the Cover valley, and she had picked up her sword for the first time in months. He would be furious with her but the feel of the hilt against her palm reminded her of all that she had once been. When she drew Will’s old blade from its worn, stained scabbard, she found the edge was bright and keen. That brought a smile too for Ragwulf must have honed it.

The last Shroud  BRAG I

Now she was tired – glowing with rude health – but tired. He had told her to rest but had she not rested for months whilst her wounds healed? She hated having to sit still – God’s blood, she would waste away from all this rest! She knew he worried about her and, now that her belly swelled with his child, he worried all the more. She would do all she could to allay his fears: she had been careful this morning not to overdo it… just a few guards, a few moves, a little exercise with a blade in her hand, feeling its balance, its weight… And it felt good, this guilty pleasure.

Ragwulf would change her if he could. So here she sat, outside the tumbledown cottage where they squatted, obediently taking her ease in the warmth of the sun… like the lady he wanted her to be.

Though she grows ever wearier of war, when the fur starts to fly, you just know that Eleanor will be in thick of it, scratching out the eyes of anyone who endangers her family.

In the first book of a new series, Scars from the Past, Eleanor Elder returns. The new story begins in 1481 and she is now approaching the age of 37, though she has aged well and retained much of her beauty. The Elder family is led by matriarchs and Eleanor is one of them but her concern now is for the future of her children and those of her brother Ned.

She remembers with bitterness when she was their age, fighting for her life in the feud with the Radcliffe family. But England is at peace in 1481 and all seems well. The days of family feuds and struggles for the throne are over – aren’t they?

Eleanor does not know the meaning of defeat. When I write Eleanor I often listen to the song Try by Pink and I find inspiration for Eleanor in the lines:

“Where there is desire
There is gonna be a flame
Where there is a flame
Someone’s bound to get burned
But just because it burns
Doesn’t mean you’re gonna die
You’ve gotta get up and try, and try, and try”

We will have to wait to see if there is still a fire burning in Eleanor’s breast… but don’t expect this character to stop trying… ever.

About Author:

Derek Birks BRAGDerek was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties.
For many years he taught history in a secondary school but took early retirement to concentrate on writing. Apart from his writing, he spends his time gardening, travelling, walking and taking part in archaeological digs at a Roman villa.
Derek is interested in a wide range of historical themes but his particular favourite is the late medieval period. He writes action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history.
His debut historical novel, Feud, is set in the period of the Wars of the Roses and is the first of a series entitled Rebels & Brothers which follows the fortunes of the fictional Elder family.
The fourth and final book of the series, The Last Shroud, was published in the summer of 2015.

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Characters in Motion: Bestselling Author Margaret Porter

A Pledge of better timesLady Diana de Vere, the heroine of A Pledge of Better Times, was born into an aristocratic and prominent family of the late 17th century. Her father is an earl, a courtier and trusted advisor to Charles II, a position he retains—for a time—under James II. The landscape of Diana’s life, therefore, consists of the royal palace of Whitehall in London—her extended family’s dwellings lie within the palace complex. In a very real sense she’s closed off from the common citizen, from ordinary life, apart from her interaction with servants. Her world is one of opulence and privilege, and also one of restricted movements. A large part of my research was visiting sites were familiar to her during her lifetime, which allowed me to envision her in the actual spaces she had occupied and to imagine her in the ones that no longer exist.

Her father, Lord Oxford, welcomes her questions and provides supportive guidance. Her mother, despite a scandalous past as a courtesan, is far less tolerant of what she perceives as Diana’s faults, and she’s determined that her daughter will achieve a wealthy and advantageous marriage. As a maid of honour to Queen Mary II, my secondary heroine, Diana finds a sort of freedom living away from home, following queen and court from Whitehall to Hampton Court to Kensington and back. Not only does her position remove her from her mother’s orbit, it enables a semi-clandestine courtship by Charles Beauclerk, son of King Charles II and actress Nell Gwyn. As married woman and duchess, Diana’s intelligence, independent spirit, and tendency to speak her mind create conflict on more than one occasion.

Diana’s habits and pursuits are typical of an aristocratic female of her time—needlework, music, dancing, and drawing. Religious instruction in her early life takes firm root, and her faith is a source of strength in difficult times, and supports her during life’s soul-searing tragedies. Her fondness for gardens and sewing and devotional writings make her the ideal companion for Queen Mary, who shares and fosters these interests.

Diana’s personality is a mixture of calm serenity, attractive to the troubled and often agitated Queen Mary, determination, and occasional tempestuousness. In her youth she has convictions but lacks empowerment, but as she matures she gains a certain amount of agency. She will exert herself to control or to remedy a situation, and then faces the consequences with resignation. Her loyalty to her queen, her duty to her family, and her fidelity to her husband are ruling attributes. But she can be prejudiced as well, and finds herself unable to warm to King William—she sees firsthand the distress he causes his wife through his frequent absences. Yet her husband secures His Majesty’s favour, and retaining it is paramount to him.

Diana’s greatest antagonist in early life is her own mother, who values her as an asset to exploit for the family’s advantage, and who hopes to sever her daughter’s relationship with “Nelly’s brat.” Queen Mary’s antagonist is her sister Princess Anne, who causes much grief and anger from insubordination and through her relationship with her confidante Sarah Churchill, the Countess and later the Duchess of Marlborough. The latter is not only an antagonist to the queen, she pulls strings to shatter one of Diana’s most cherished hopes. Sarah was born a commoner, and her unkindness towards Diana—an aristocrat from birth—arises from jealousy.

Charles, Diana’s suitor and eventual husband, faces antagonists at court and on the battlefield—as does her father. For them, the greatest personal antagonist is King James II. Each man strives in different ways to cope with the stubborn and imperious monarch, with varying degrees of success. King James, a Roman Catholic convert, is so fanatical about his religion that he disregards Parliamentary laws and protocols, and thus brings about his destruction. Lady Oxford, Diana’s mother, is antagonistic towards Charles, mocking him in public and in private. In her opinion, he’s an unworthy husband for a de Vere and lacks the money needed to restore the family’s fortunes.

My characters’ self-image is of great significance, with powerful impact upon plot and conflicts within the story. Royal blood flows through the veins of Charles Beauclerk, Duke of St. Ablans: his father and grandparents and prior ancestors were kings and queens of England. Yet his mother was the lowest of commoners. Nell Gwyn, raised in a brothel, sold oranges in the theatre and was an actress before the king made her his mistress. Charles can never feel completely comfortable at the royal court, especially after his father’s death. He chooses instead a voluntary exile in order to become a soldier. As an army officer, he believes, he can rise to prominence on his own merits. This ambition is unexpectedly undermined, and when he discovers by whom he does not react well.

As for Diana, she is a woman of sterling reputation and great depth, but most people in her world (and down through history) regard her primarily as a court beauty. The greatest painter of the day painted her—repeatedly—and she retained her looks till her dying day. Her mother believed that the girl’s lovely face destined her for a brilliant match rather than a match based on passion, affection, and compatibility. As a married woman, Diana wonders whether her beauty alone attracts her husband instead of other qualities she values in herself. Her beauty, like Charles’s bastardy, is isolating, troublesome, and a source of inner conflict. She tends to judge others as critically as she does herself, but that judgment is usually tempered by an effort to understand…something her husband is slower to do.

Lord Oxford, Diana’s father, has lived long and seen much. He tends to regard himself as a relic of the past, yet he’s pragmatic enough to be progressive when necessary. During the Civil Wars he was Royalist—twice he was imprisoned by Cromwell on suspicion of being a spy—and believes himself forever loyal to the Stuarts. When James II tests this loyalty in unexpected ways, his lordship’s conscience as a member of Parliament and as a Protestant force him to turn against his king and support the Williamite cause.

Queen Mary, for a variety of reasons, has low self-esteem and a poor self-image. Her uncle King Charles married her off to her Dutch first cousin, a complete stranger. But her dread and sorrow at leaving England for a foreign court gave way to a true and lasting love. She’s tortured by guilt over her repudiation of her father the King when her husband seizes the crown for himself. Although her claim to England’s throne is stronger than William’s, she regards herself as his inferior, unfit to rule, and willingly cedes all authority to him. Yet it is she who is—most unhappily—left in control of the nation while he’s away fighting his endless wars. At the same time she must deal with her recalcitrant sister Anne and the problematic Lady Marlborough. Adding to these woes is her husband’s infidelity, and the fact that his mistress is a courtier—and much less attractive than Mary.

For me, writing biographical historical fiction requires the weaving of three necessary strands to form a plot. First there’s the factual biographical record of the individuals depicted—gleaned from period diaries, newspaper accounts, portrait sittings, memoirs, family genealogies, and other primary sources. Then there’s the factual historical record of their times—what significant events did they participate in, how were they affected by events near or far, with whom were they likely to interact on a regular or irregular basis. And lastly, but in a way the most important for a fiction writer, is the imagination, the creative component that enables the author to invent.

The bare facts of biography can’t really reveal how a real-life individual felt at any given moment. The private aspects of life—personal opinions, passions, deepest feelings about self or others—are concealed areas of past lives, the least accessible aspects of the individuals. Especially if the characters are relatively obscure, as Diana and Charles are. I must therefore invent conversations, reactions, consequences for my characters. I have to draw conclusions from research that I hope bear a semblance of accuracy, but I can never lose sight of the fact that I am telling a story for the purpose of entertaining—informing about history and enlightening about the human condition are wonderful side benefits. That combination of elements made me love historical fiction in childhood, and they’ve kept me writing it throughout my adulthood!

A Pledge of Better Times

“Porter’s ambitious novel of 17th-century England is brimming with vivid historical figures and events . . . rigorously researched and faithfully portrayed.” ~  Publishers Weekly

“A true delight for fans of monarchy. . . Porter does a sensational job portraying the time period . . . the relationship between Charles and Diana is complex and interesting.” ~ The Examiner

“Elegant prose and vivid detail…sweeps you into late Stuart England.” ~ Marci Jefferson, author of Enchantress of Paris and Girl on the Golden Coin

margaretporterthumb1Because I was born into a family of readers and writers and scholars and travelers, there’s no mystery about how or why I found my profession. From a very early age I invented characters and composed scenes and stories in my head. At about 10 years old I first saw my own words printed–in the grammar school newsletter that I co-founded, typed, and published. Around the same time I decided to combine my theatrical and my writing ambitions, and adapted all my favourite youth novels into scripts.

Since then many, many more words have been published: novels, nonfiction articles on British history and travel and theatre, website content, book and film reviews, my M.A. thesis, advertising copy…and more.

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Historical Fiction & Meaning with John Orton

John OrtonToday B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree John Orton talks with me about writing historical Fiction. John was awarded an indieBRAG medallion for his first book The Five Stone Steps, (A Tale of a Policeman’s life in 1920’s South Shields), was born in South Shields, England, in 1949. Educated at South Shields Grammar School he read Law at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford and followed a career as a Solicitor in local government. He was County Solicitor and Clerk of Avon County Council when a stress related illness led to his retirement. Married with three children John now lives in Portishead, near Bristol and shares his time between writing, playing old style piano and gardening.

What are the periods of history focused on for your writing?

The 1920s. Writing about life in South Shields in the 1920s did not at first seem to me like history – it’s only a hundred years ago and my father was born in 1920; my Grandparents were born in the 1890s and my Nan was always talking about her life in the early years of the twentieth century. But when you think about how life was then and how it is now, and the changes that we’ve seen over just three generations then yes, it is history. South Shields was at that time a major seaport, a town with three coal mines, shipyards, glass works and other heavy industry all dependent on a resident work force who in the nineteenth century had flocked to the town for work. They lived in long terraced streets paved with cobbles – life had always been hard but with the recession after the Great War it got harder. The town had pubs galore where the sailors, miners, shipyard workers and others would take their beer – and if the men were hard then the Polis had to be harder.

Why Historical Fiction?

When I was in my teens I was taught how to play old style piano – Ragtime, Jelly Roll Morton, blues and boogie-woogie, – by Tommy Gordon, a noted old style jazz pianist. Tommy was a bit of a character and we became firm friends – he liked his beer and would tell all sorts of stories including some about his father’s time as a bobby on the beat in Shields. After my retirement I’d toyed with writing but nothing had really come off. I was thinking of writing a ‘whodunit’ set in my home town in the 1900s and asked Tommy if he could give me any background information about policing in those days. He handed me a dust covered, dog eared, hand written manuscript of his father’s memoirs. They were written when his father was in his seventies and had come to live with Tommy and his family. He would sit of an evening at a table by the fire, glass of malt at hand and write of life as a young bobby on the streets of South Shields in the old days. He was a Scot, had joined the Glasgow Tramways Battallion of the Highland Light Infantry, fought in the trenches and on demob had joined the South Shields Police Force.

The Memoirs were fascinating – as you read them you could nearly smell the whisky and hear the rugged Scottish tones of Tom ‘Jock’ Gordon. The Memoirs were not structured in any particular way, as Jock wrote down what came into his mind, but they did give not only a firsthand account of policing but also of the town and its characters. They inspired me to write The Five Stone Steps a combination of fact and fiction that tells the tale of Tom Duncan, a fictional Scot who joins the South Shields Police in 1919.

When did you know you wanted be a Historical Fiction writer?

Unearthing the memoirs after they had been gathering dust for more than thirty years was a stroke of luck. As I really got into the work of turning them into a fact based fictional narrative I realised that this was a genre I was really comfortable with.

How much time do you spend on research? What sources do you use?

I was fortunate to have one main source, the memoirs, and also a personal knowledge of the town itself together with the many stories my Nan, and my Dad, had told of life in the twenties. But to bring Jock’s memoirs to life I had to know the town as it was in the 1920s – the old town of Shields grew up along the riverside and many of these old houses and buildings, some dating from Tudor times were demolished in the 30s; Shields was hit hard by the German blitz raids during WW2 and many parts of the town had to be rebuilt. Much of the town that Jock Gordon knew in the 20s had gone even before I was born. Using old ordnance survey maps and old photographs in the South Tyneside Library’s collections I was able to build a picture of how the streets of Shields looked in the 1920s, with their pubs, lodging houses, cafés, theatres and picture houses. Two of the stories in the book are set in Holborn, a riverside area crammed full of pubs and seamen’s lodging houses – with a community of Arab and Somalian seafarers – the picture shows one of the narrow streets where you can see the Hop Pole Inn and Mrs. Camillieri’s lodging house. Holborn

The other type of research is ad hoc – you are writing a story line and you want it to go in a certain direction but you are not sure about the historical accuracy of what you want to include.

An example: in the Chapter ‘An early call’  a young seaman from Bristol had married a Shields girl – they had been living together but their landlady found out that they were living in sin and was going to evict them. His wife in Bristol finds out and he is convicted of bigamy. The story I wanted to follow had the girlfriend visiting him every week in Durham Jail – it was only when I was on the third or fourth revision that I stopped and thought – were prison visits allowed in the 1920s? It was not easy to find out but I sent an email to a Society that organises prison visitors and was pleasantly surprised to get a very helpful reply. I had to change the story line but it actually improved it – here is a short extract that tells you about prison visiting in the 1920s.

Constable Tom Duncan (the fictional version of ‘Jock’ Duncan) is the narrator:

Peggy came to see me afterwards and asked if I could help her to pen a letter to Davey in prison. She could barely write herself so I put down a few words for her which she signed, and I sent it to the Prison Chaplain with a covering note from myself. In those days there was no routine visiting for prisoners, and any contact with them had to be arranged with the Chaplain who was responsible for the moral welfare of the prisoners. I received a short letter back enclosing Peggy’s letter. The Chaplain had no intention of encouraging prisoner Honeywill’s immoral liaison with Miss Lampshine and would not permit any contact between them. He had been trying to persuade Honeywill to become reconciled with his wife, and had requested the Prison Authorities to transfer the prisoner to Horfield Prison in Bristol, so that he would be able to receive visits from his wife. We heard afterwards that she had only visited Davey once, had spat in his face, and left.

What do you feel is the importance of historical fiction?

It stimulates the imagination in a way not always achieved by contemporary fiction but also brings history to those who might not otherwise take an interest. This effect can be multiplied many times if a successful novel or series is televised – in the UK there has been a lot of interest in the Wars of the Roses not only as a result of the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III in a car park in Leicester but also because of the dramatisation on TV (The White Queen) of Phillipa Gregory’s series The Cousin Wars. This reignited the debate over whether Richard III was a murderous, hunchbacked, child slayer or was a thoroughly good King whose reputation was sullied by a determined PR campaign by the Tudors and their playwright lackey William Shakespeare!

Who are your influences?

As I stumbled into historical fiction I cannot claim to have been influenced by any of the great historical fiction writers whose works I love: Sir Thomas Malory, Alexandre Dumas, Sir Walter Scott, C S Forester, Bernard Cornwell and the French writers Robert Merle (La Fortune de France) and Maurice Druon (Les Rois Maudits). In terms of the writing style I aspire to – easy to read, terse, with plenty of dialogue using idiomatic speech then I would give two American authors, Damon Runyon and Erle Stanley Gardner.

How much fiction (in your opinion) is best to blend with historical facts?

As much as you want. Fiction is storytelling and you will only hold the audience’s attention if you have a good story to tell. If the main historical content, for example the life of Richard III, is all ready a good enough story then you only need to add what you need to tell the story your way. If the story is your own, for example Ivanhoe, or more recently Uthred in Cornwell’s Saxon Stories then you just need to ensure that it fits neatly into the historical context. If in doing so you have to ‘change’ the history, for example dates of battles or other events, then you should tell the reader in a post script.

The Five Stone Steps BRAGBut one thing that is important is to put in as much historical fact as you can to make your story authentic. Tom ‘Jock’ Gordon was one of the team that carried out a raid on a street bookies house – in the Five Stone Steps, in the chapter A Sure Thing, my story line, based on the raid, revolves around the winner of the St. Ledger coming in at long odds. In the first draft I just made up a name of a fictional winner – then I thought that was not good enough – research on the web did not help and then I remembered that we had a book inherited from my father-in-law ‘Cope’s Racegoer’s Encyclopaedia 1949’ – and Lo and Behold! In the tables at the back there was a list of all winners of the St. Ledger since 1896 and in 1922 the race was won by Royal Lancer at 33 to 1 – a perfect fit.

What are the important steps in writing Historical Fiction?

 Know your period inside out – research as much as you can about it even if you will not use it all in your work. Try and make your characters real to the life of that period – not as easy as it sounds. If your book is set in Anglo Saxon times, for example, don’t have your character washing his face first thing in the morning – Anglo Saxons never washed – under any circumstances! The Danes did, once a week on a Sunday in a near-by river, whatever the weather – they also combed their hair –an effeminate vice! (King Ethelred, who was heartily fed up with the Danes massacred as many as he could while they bathed on St. Brice’s Day (Nov 13) 1002.

What must you not do writing in this genre?

Not sure if there any red lines – but for me you do have a duty towards your readers. Many, including myself like to believe in the stories they are reading. So I don’t think you should change or alter history because you have a pet theory – leave that to the professional historian who has to back up any new version of history with evidence and will be harshly judges by his peers if he cannot prove his thesis.

When writing, do you use visuals to give you inspiration? Such as historical pictures of people, castles, towns and such? What about historical objects?

Definitely – I decided that The Five Stone Steps would be illustrated and each chapter has an old photo of a location used in the story – not usual in fiction – but I regard my work as ‘faction’ – fiction based on fact and wanted readers to be able to visualise where the action takes place. As mentioned above a lot of my research was done by looking at old photos of South Shields. This was made easy as a result of South Tyneside Libraries initiative in setting up a web-site Historic Images of South Tyneside – www.southtynesideimages.org.uk/ where you can search their extensive collection of historic photos. One of Jock’s stories related to a fire at a pub in Albermarle Street – at that time the Police manned the fire tender. The Policemen attending the fire would first of all set up a barrel of beer on a trestle to quench their thirst; then they would ‘rescue’ as many bottles as possible that would end up as breakages but before being broken would be transported to Police HQ, decanted into buckets and then drunk down. ‘Jock’ did not name the pub. I did a search on South Tyneside Images and found a photo of a pub in Albermarle Street called the Royal Arms and was able to use this in the story. (If you’d like to see the photo search for  STH0000334)

So far as objects are concerned Tommy did have his Dad’s old truncheon, (which the old hands still referred to as staves)- called Fagan. It was made of solid hardwood which sank in water! In A Nip of Whisky (Chapter 2) someone has drank the pot of whisky left outside the back door of the Black and Grey by the publican for the bobby on night shift – Bill Spyles, an old hand. When Bill returns to the parade room he is not happy.

 “Some bastard’s had me whisky.” We all looked up. “I was all right at the Scotia and the Bridge but when I got to the Black and Grey the pot was empty – same at the Golden Lion and the City of Durham. The bugger had cut the tie and left the pot on the ground.” He looked towards me and Alec and one or two other of the new recruits. “If I catch the sod that did it I’ll ram me stave right up his arse.” Bill didn’t make threats lightly and the truncheons in those days were solid wood.

 

Characters in Motion with Alison Morton

AURELIA BRAGMeet Aurelia Mitela – woman and warrior

Aurelia Mitela, archetype Roma Novan, came to life when I was writing the first Roma Nova book, INCEPTIO. Then, she was the clever, experienced grandmother of Carina, the book’s heroine.

Let Carina tell you in her own words of her first impression of Aurelia:

“She’d been so concerned for me, but not in a soppy way. Direct and ‘no-nonsense’ fitted her perfectly, but her smile had been warm. I couldn’t help speculating how it would have been to grow up with her instead of the Browns.

I started tapping the keys, surfing for Roma Nova while I was drinking and thinking. I couldn’t leave it alone. My grandmother’s name shot out at me. Fascinated, I loaded the English translation. The screen displayed a list of her business interests. Sketchy on detail, it gave some personal stuff at the end: head of the influential Mitela family, senator and government advisor, cousin to the current imperatrix. She really was a big hitter.”

In PERFIDITAS, we see Aurelia, the cool ex-Praetorian, holding the family together after they’d been falsely arrested:

“[Aurelia to Carina] ‘I’ve been through a great deal worse. I’m not a little old lady out of some genteel novel.’

No, she truly wasn’t. She’d been PGSF [Praetorian Guard Special Forces] in her time, even led the attack to retake the city during the civil war. Although now in her mid-seventies, she definitely belonged to the “tough gals” league.

She gave me a close description of the arresting party. What a difference it made when the victim was a trained professional and could give you precise, detailed information. She’d printed off her statement and signed it already.”

 Throughout the first three books, INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO, we catch glimpses of Aurelia’s early life, but even more, a whole range of questions are thrown up. What did she do in the Great Rebellion nearly twenty-three years before the time of INCEPTIO? Why is she so anxious when she compares the villain in SUCCESSIO to Caius Tellus, the brutal ‘First Consul’ who instigated the rebellion all those years ago? Who was the great love of Aurelia’s life that Carina only learns about in SUCCESSIO?

In AURELIA, the fourth book which takes us back to the late 1960s, Aurelia is accused of murder while on a mission to Berlin, and while in remand undergoes a (hostile) psychological assessment. Here’s the report on her:

Subject is highly rational, quick-minded and a natural leader. She sees nothing is impossible given enough time and resources. Subject has the confident personality and willpower to pursue and implement her goals, easily bringing others with her. A dominant personality.

 Strategic thinker, curious, innovative, able to grasp and deal with problems with determination and precision. Energetic and excellent communication skills, happy to confront and negotiate with others. Intelligent enough to recognise other people’s talents, and work with them. Requires challenges and even failures, or her self-confidence could easily turn into arrogance and condescension.

 Personalities of this type cannot tolerate inefficiency or those whom they perceive as lazy or incompetent. They can be chillingly cold and ruthless when the situation arises, operating purely on logic and rationality.

 They interact very well with others, often charming them to their cause, and paying attention to other people’s feelings – or at least pretending that they do. Most mature and successful personalities of this type are genuine in this aspect to some extent, even though their sensitivity may hide a cold and calculating mind.

 This is a slant on the classic ENTJ personality profile from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a psychometric test system popular in business to indicate psychological preferences about how people perceive the world and make decisions. I needed to make the report negative for the story, but positive aspects of this type of personality are that they are conceptual and global thinkers, able to see connections where others don’t, and to think ahead. Couple this with the intuition and sense of fair play many ENTJs possess, it can make life frustrating for this personality when people around them don’t grasp things the way they do. Of course, this conflict is a gift for a writer…

In essence, Aurelia is a blood-and-bone Roma Novan whose values are based on traditional ancient Roman ones; tough, loyal with a strong sense of duty and fully aware of her responsibilities as head of a great family. But her desire to keep all the balls juggling in the air with precise timing leads to her being riven by guilt if she doesn’t perform a hundred per cent.

Aurelia has one vulnerability, her love for her frail daughter, Marina. This vulnerability, and willingness to sacrifice everything for Marina, is also her greatest strength, along with her determination to serve her country.

Is she sympathetic? Yes, because under all that resolution and toughness, she is still a human being who experiences fear, love, despair and grief. She bitterly misses the strong comradeship of her earlier military career, and is exhilarated when going back into action. And then, there is her devotion to her life-long love, elusive though he sometimes is…

AURELIA is the fourth book in the Roma Nova thriller series,  BRAG Medallion Honoree and currently a finalist in the 2016 Historical Novel Society Indie Award

Watch the AURELIA trailer

Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site

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Twitter  @alison-morton

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About Alison

AURELIA BRAG MedallionEven before she pulled on her first set of military fatigues, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces. Everybody in her family had done time in uniform and in theatre all over the globe.

So busy in her day job, Alison joined the Territorial Army in a special communications regiment and left as a captain, having done all sorts of interesting and exciting things no civilian would ever know or see. Or that she can talk about, even now…

But something else fuels her writing… Fascinated by the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain), at their creation by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilisation, she started wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women.

Alison holds a bachelor’s degree in French, German and Economics, a masters’ in history. Her memberships include: International Thriller Writers, Historical Novel Society, Alliance of Independent Authors, Society of Authors, Romantic Novelists’ Association. Represented by Blake Friedman Literary Agency for overseas and ancillary rights, Alison lives in France with her husband and writes Roman-themed thrillers with tough heroines.

 

 

Characters in Motion: Behind the Mask of Self-Image by Laurie Boris

Laurie BorrisWhether I’m reading or writing, I’m a sucker for flawed characters trying to do the best they can with what life has dealt them. Maybe I love these people a little too much—my novels are full of them. Sometimes I even throw additional obstacles in their paths. I don’t enjoy torturing my characters—most of the time—but I like to see what they’re made of and how badly they want to redeem themselves. Not only do their flaws and demons make for rich, honest writing material, but it’s also more fun for me to work with someone who isn’t a “perfect” hero.

Even more telling about broken characters is what they choose to tell the world about themselves. In real life, it takes a lot of courage to admit when you’ve screwed up big time, when the path you’re on is no longer working, when you’re in too deep and feel like there’s no way out. Who hasn’t been tempted to mask private agony with a smile and tell everyone that everything’s fine? Who hasn’t hidden behind a brave face, at least until the trouble passes or the weight becomes too heavy to carry alone? Since the fiction I write often draws from reality, I’m fascinated by self-image—the faces my characters decide to show the world, and how that changes over the course of the story.

A Sudden Gust of GravityAs I began working on my most recent novel, A Sudden Gust of Gravity, I realized I had another cast of characters spinning their self-images to cover their pain, their grief, and their weaknesses. Christina, the claustrophobic magician’s assistant, is consumed with looking like she’s got it all figured out, that she’s in control of what is sometimes an out-of-control life. And all her plans depend on her ability to keep that mask fastened tight. Devon, the surgical resident, compensates for his greatest failure with a driving desire to rescue anyone who will let him. And Ralph the magician, hiding behind his stage name and his charming smile, tap-dances around his misdeeds like he’s been played as the innocent victim all along—because what antagonist really believes he’s the bad guy?

Don’t Tell AnyoneI faced a slightly different problem when I wrote Don’t Tell Anyone, the story of what happens when a big, fat secret (or three) lands in the middle of an already dysfunctional family. An unrelated medical emergency reveals Estelle’s breast cancer, a secret she’d been keeping from her children since she discovered the first tumor. Daughter-in-law Liza strives to be her champion when everyone else seems to be deciding Estelle’s fate for her. Estelle’s elder son Adam is angry and lashing out; his brother Charlie lightens the mood with dark humor. But while each of the principal characters are freaking out in their own way, each has a self-image to maintain. Liza’s mantle of practicality and super-competence covers her doubts about the future and her private disappointment that her mother-in-law never liked her. Adam’s shield of anger wards off his fear. Charlie’s humor lets him hide from his own pain.

But similar to real life, there’s only so long characters can keep up the façade. They are discovered, or provoked into dropping their guard, or it’s just too much work propping up all that pretense. I love that moment of vulnerability when the secrets come out and a character decides how to play it. There’s great potential for growth and change. And maybe that’s one of the reasons I gravitate toward flawed people. In that moment when the window opens on the pain, the anger, the shame, the doubt—that’s when these fictional people become real in our heads, when we recognize our loved ones in them…and ourselves.

Bio:

Laurie Boris has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of six novels, including two indieBRAG medallion honorees. When not playing with the universe of imaginary people in her head, she’s a freelance copyeditor and enjoys baseball, reading, and avoiding housework.

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Characters in Motion with Janet Wertman

I’d like to welcome Janet Wertman to Layered Pages today. Janet is taking part in my characters in Motion series and talks with us about her earliest draft of Jane the Quene. Be sure to check out her links below and click on her website to learn more about her.

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Janet WertmanFirst, let me thank you for this series and the opportunity to discuss Characters in Motion. It was a fun exercise for me – especially since it was a topic I struggled with. I didn’t get to create the story from my characters, I had to create my characters from the story…and likable ones at that!

My debut novel, Jane the Quene, is the story of Jane Seymour, the third wife for whom Henry VIII executed Anne Boleyn. A lot of people know the basic facts, and virtually all of them are Team Anne.  But there is a way to tell Jane’s story that highlights its natural poignancy. That’s the story I wanted to tell, the one that would give Jane a team of her own – or at least acceptance.

The earliest drafts of the novel failed to do that. I wanted to make sure I got the story factually right, so I established my markers – very specific dates on which things happened – and I filled in the characters based on how they were reported to have acted at that time (I did have some wiggle room thanks to conflicting reports from inconsistent chroniclers, which let me pick and choose from a tapestry of stories that many had heard before, and reinterpret them in the way that felt right to me). As my writing books suggested, I told each scene from the point of view of the person most impacted in it …but that led to me giving voices to eight people – Jane, Henry, Edward, Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Anne Seymour, even Mary. Jane’s voice and experience were lost, and the story was flat.

Then I found a great developmental editor who told me that I needed to forget the objective story and make it all about Jane’s personal experience. I could keep my timeline but I had to drastically cut the POVs. She originally suggested keeping only Jane’s voice, but I knew I needed a second someone to tell the other side of the story, someone who could detail the actual plotting that was taking place. Cromwell was the perfect choice – he was another vilified character with a poignant story (though the poignancy does not emerge until the close of this book), and he allowed me to reveal more of Henry (Jane saw him as good, Cromwell saw him as evil).

jane-the-queen-book-cover

From there, everything just fell into place. Since everything I wanted to say had to be filtered through Jane or Cromwell, I found myself showing more and telling less. Making each scene unfold slowly, with sensory details to anchor it. This was fiction after all and I was able to layer in the imagined private moments of Jane’s journey.  The September 1535 meeting in the gardens, the April 1536 hunting trip where Jane learns that Anne will die…these were the key pieces of the narrative. Invented, but still loosely based on facts (like the fact that Henry loved concocting medicines…the fact that hunting involved unmaking the deer and sharing the “good” organs on the spot…).  I had almost free rein with these, except for one particular pivotal scene: The December 1536 confluence of two blessed events (Mary’s return to court, London gathering on the frozen Thames to cheer on the royal procession to church) with two tragic ones (Jane’s father dying and another miscarriage). Luckily, everything worked (assuming a relatively speedy messenger!).

I’m finding the same challenges in the sequel: I am currently working on The Path to Somerset, which is the story of Edward Seymour (another vilified character with a poignant story…I have a pattern!) during the second three-set of Henry’s wives (Henry’s crazy years). Jane was about morality, Somerset is about power and risk. I am really enjoying getting to motivation in between the things we know happened…though I have to say I look forward to the editing process as I already know some places to be smoothed out a bit!

Janet Wertman

Author Links:

LINKS

Amazon US

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For more information on Janet and her book Jane the Quene, go to her wonderful website, where she blogs on Tudor history.

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Be sure to check out Nancy Bilyeau’s  interview with Janet!