The Perils of Research

It should not have been a surprise, that the photo-research side of my writing would be perilous. The signs were there. Way back when my ...

Friday, 21 September 2018

The Perils of Research

It should not have been a surprise, that the photo-research side of my writing would be perilous. The signs were there. Way back when my kids were small, there was an incident at Dunstanburgh Castle. It’s a windy old place at the best of times, and I do recall availing myself of the facilities, a portaloo in this case, and feeling that at any moment the entire cabinet would take off, and that I’d be sitting on a very different kind of throne in full view of all the visitors. 

But the bit we all remember, and which is seared into the memories of my emotionally-scarred offspring, was the walk back to the car park along the blustery headland. I shouted to the two elder ones to grab hold of their younger sister, and at one point she was horizontal, blowing like a flag, her hair slapping round her face as vicious as any cat o’ nine tails. 

Attribution Link

There was also the search for the old church in Wales which involved three separate attempts, a conversation in Welsh with a man who looked as if he’d been rejected from the film The Deliverance for looking too menacing, and a pas de deux with several metres of barbed wire fence.

So, imagine my hubby’s delight when I announced that I needed to go on location to take photos to accompany my new book.

We began with high hopes. I simply wanted to get to a particular town in the Cotswolds. How hard could that be? Very, as it turned out. We probably, as the old adage goes, started from the wrong place. We ended up asking directions from a local mechanic, who smiled and told us that the best way was to take the local ‘shortcut’. 

I concede that, as the crow flies, it probably was the shortest route. But it did involve a 1:3 climb on roads just wide enough for a children’s tricycle, and with the occasional hairpin bend thrown in just to make the journey more interesting when the hopeful traveller becomes too complacent. We overshot the junction and had to pull into the local golf club, at which point I caught the expression of yearning on hubby’s face, and for a moment his forlorn dream of an amble down the fairways even seemed appealing to me.

When we finally got to the town I thought the obvious thing to do, in order to locate which of the pub’s walls had been built from the stones of the medieval abbey, was to ask. Turns out, not everyone knows about Anglo-Saxon architecture and where to trace lumps of stone relocated in the last but one millennium. Astonishing! Now, if I’d wanted to know all the types of beer they served, I’d have been okay. Hubby did not share my surprise that a pub landlord might know more about the contents of his pub’s barrels than of the stones used to build the cellar he kept them in.

I did eventually find a collection of abbey stones, which are now kept as part of an exhibition at nearby Sudeley Castle, but not before a kind lady at the Tourist Information Office told me that ‘If you’d like to see the well, just carry on up the hill after you’ve visited Sudeley.’

Did I want to see the well? The well where the funeral procession stopped on its way to bury a poor little murdered boy-king (allegedly)? Yes, I did! I told Hubby the story - that this little king had purportedly been murdered on the orders of his sister, and that a dove dropped a message on the altar of St Peter’s in Rome, alerting people to the whereabouts of the little boy’s body. It was found, and taken back to the abbey for burial. When the evil sister saw the funeral procession, she chanted a psalm backwards and her eyes fell out. 

Given that the problem with writing about the Anglo-Saxon era is that there is very little left in the way of buildings, I’m keen to visit any site with even the vaguest connection to my writing. And besides, the publisher needed photos and I’m nothing if not dutiful. Just carry on up the hill, the lady had said. Well, it was certainly a hill. I saw a sign to a house and farm which had a similar name to that of the murdered king. Surely this was the spot? This may also come as no surprise, but my driver didn’t respond too well to the directive, ‘Pull over here!’ so he continued manoeuvring the car up the the bendy twisty hill until it was safe to pull in. I was sure that the drop onto the soft verge wouldn’t have damaged the car wheels but oddly he wasn’t convinced.

We walked back down the bendy twisty hill which did not have pavements yet did play host to a high number of vehicles, and went up the farm track. A woman with many dogs came to greet us. Hubby thought she said, ‘Can I help you?’, I thought she said, ‘What are you up to?’ and we both reckoned the dogs were saying ‘One step nearer and we will rip your faces off.’

She gave us the good news first. Yes, she knew where the well was. Then she gave us the bad news: it was five miles across the fields in the other direction. But instinct told me that the farm and adjoining cottage wouldn’t have been named after the murdered little king without good reason. We chose to press on. And sure enough, less than 50 metres from the house, we found it. Just one, tiny, weeny problem. The ground was covered with sheep poo, and the path was overgrown with waist-high nettles. And when I say waist-high, I’m measuring them against my 6 ft tall husband. Frankly, I’m amazed he didn’t divorce me on the spot. But I got my photo!

I thought our trip to the northeast would be much easier. For one thing, it’s slightly closer to home, and for another, I knew that the site I wished to visit had been extensively excavated. I remembered seeing the sign at the entrance, and I was sure that there would be something to see. In the seventh century the Northumbrians kings had a magnificent palace on this site. Goodness knows how they got there in the first place because we had to drive round the side of a huge hill/mountain (600-ish metres, if memory serves). There was little in the way of signage but I knew the site would be obvious. This time, given that the road was straight and traffic-free, Hubby responded a little more speedily to my ‘Pull over now!’. And yes, there was the site entrance sign:

And this is what we saw.

But I got my photo!

My book came out on Sep 15 and I’m rather pleased with the colour plate section. The photos speak of calm, of quiet, of historic landscapes and ancient waterways. Hubby knows the truth though. He mutters darkly about writers staying at their desks where they belong. 

[all photos by and copyright of the author unless otherwise attributed]

Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is available from 


Amberley Publishing

Book Depository (Free worldwide shipping)

Thursday, 13 September 2018

4 Questions, 3 Pics, 2 Links: Nicky Moxey

Continuing our monthly series, where I ask authors four questions and ask them to supply three pics and two links, this month it's the turn of Nicky Moxey:

Hi! Who are you? 
Hi! My name is Nicky Moxey; I'm a British author-cum-amateur archaeologist living in Suffolk, UK.

What do you write about? 
I mostly write about things that I come across via the archaeology or in the historical record. My first historical novel, Sheriff and Priest, came about because I found a large lead sheet whilst metal detecting; figuring out what it was led me down some fascinating research alleys. Eventually I knew it was a roof tile from a priory, not marked on the map; and that the founder was a local boy-come-good who had been given 1,000 acres to set it up by none other than the King's mistress. What?!! Why? That sealed my fate for the next few years - how could I not write the novel?

I'm currently editing the sequel, which I hadn't planned on writing at all - but the story of why the priory had been moved lock, stock and barrel from its original location to where it is on the map today turned out to be just as interesting!

I have published a series of children's short stories about other things that inspire me - a Viking ship prow, for instance, or a chicken-sized feathered dinosaur, or a poorly-executed karate kick. They're great fun to write, and I want to do three more and wrap the set up at nine.

There's also a Bronze Age lady called Anya scowling at me with her arms crossed, toe tapping, waiting for me to give her some attention. She's part of the Historical Novel Society's current anthology, Distant Echoes, but apparently that's not good enough, she wants to be in a novel too. Real soon now, Anya - I promise!

Which character will we love to love and why? Which character will we love to hate and why?
I love Wimer the Chaplain, the Sheriff and Priest above, and I hope you will too! I'll tell you a secret - there's an old oak stump on the priory's foundation site which, if you squint, looks like a monk - and that's where I go to chew over all my troubles. It somehow helps enormously that I know him very well - I've seen his handwriting in the Pipe Rolls, for instance, when he wrote his resignation letter; and I love that he chose a tiny cormorant drying its wings as his personal seal, just as he would have seen them doing on the local river when he was a boy. I can talk to him without anyone hearing and without him answering back!

As to characters to hate - injustice, arrogance and assumption of automatic privilege are things that make me seethe. Thomas a'Becket's actions in the first book are despicable (and true); King John's my baddie in the sequel. I did allow myself one scene that's a pure flight of fancy there; but I'm sure he would have been just as nasty if it had occurred to him!

Nicky's Amazon Page
Wimer's Facebook Page

Monday, 3 September 2018

IndieBRAG Novel Conversations: A New Series

So, you've written a novel. For whatever reason - and there could be many - you have decided to self-publish. 

That doesn't make you less of a writer; that makes you an Indie writer. Which means you can submit your book to IndieBRAG.

What does this mean? Well, as their mission statement says, they aim to discover 'talented self-published authors and help them give their work the attention and recognition it deserves.'

When your book is submitted, it will go through a rigorous process during which the IndieBRAG readers will read and assess your book, checking it against a list of criteria.

Given that not all books are accepted, those authors who then go on to receive the BRAG Medallion can say that their book has been held up to scrutiny and can wear the badge with pride. The BRAG Medallion is a mark of quality.

And it doesn't stop there. Authors are invited to write articles for the IndieBRAG blog, there are opportunities for interviews and now there is a new initiative.

Every two weeks, Indie author and champion Helen Hollick will be presenting interviews with characters from Medallion-winning books.

The first of these Novel Conversations will be published on Tuesday 4 September 2018 and will feature a character from one of the books of multi BRAG winner Anna Belfrage, Matthew Graham, from her award-winning time-slip series, The Graham Saga.

And look out for a conversation with a certain Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians on October 12 😉

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Review: Pirates - Truth and Tales - by Helen Hollick

Let me start this review with a confession. I've not ever been a huge fan of pirates. I watched the first Pirates of the Caribbean film and couldn't even follow the plot. So I wasn't sure how I'd react to this book. 

I needn't have worried. For a start, the book sets the reader very straight about the difference between what we think we know about pirates, and the historical truth.

Ms Hollick has written a series of novels about pirates, or, more correctly, about a particular pirate: Jesemiah Acorne. No one could, or should, write historical novels without doing thorough research, and it's clear that the author has done her homework.

This book gives a detailed, informative and interesting history of piracy. Sometimes of piracy in general, and sometimes giving short biographies of some of the more famous names - Calico Jack, Mary Read, Anne Bonny - and some less well-knowns - Jan Baert, William Fly.

But this book is not just a good, solid, well-researched book about the history of pirates. It is also a book which you can dip in and out of, including as it does excerpts from novels, recipes - for Damson Rum, yum! - sea shanties, a glossary of pirate 'speak', of terminology, and lists of pirates' ships and their colours.

Packed full of interesting information, the book gives the reader plenty of  'Well, I didn't know that!' moments. I rather regret that I was on my own when I was reading it, because there were many times when I wanted to say to someone, 'Did you know the origin of the phrase...' 

There were many times when I also chuckled aloud. Not just at the information, but at the light delivery. Ms Hollick is such an enthusiastic writer, and the book's tone is warm, friendly, but never less than informative.

Every aspect of this life is explored - the depiction of pirates in film, television and novels, what 'gaol' meant, the difference between sailors and tars, how they navigated across the seas. We even learn why pirates all seem to be portrayed as speaking in the traditional 'arrr' way. It's all fascinating stuff.

Ms Hollick has pulled off a difficult feat, giving us solid history and an accessible and highly entertaining read. So, although I began thinking I wasn't a fan of pirates, I can't recommend this book highly enough. It even gives a history of rum. Cheers!

Helen recently took off on a voyage of her own, not across the high seas, but across the blogosphere. She weighed anchor on this blog on August 3rd, where she talked about the Vikings. You can read that post HERE where you'll also find links to all the other ports of call on her voyage.

And you can buy Pirates, and all of Helen's novels at

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

4 Questions, 3 Pictures, 2 Links: Loretta Livingstone

Continuing our monthly series, where I ask authors four questions and ask them to supply three pics and two links, this month it's the turn of Loretta Livingstone:

Hi, who are you?
My name is Loretta Livingstone. I'm a British author living in the beautiful Chiltern Hills with my husband and cat.

What do you write about?
I now write fiction set in the twelfth century with a dash of time travel. I used to write more contemporary stuff - but that's another story.

Which character will we love to love, and why?
I hope you'll love my medieval abbess, Hildegarde of Sparnstow. A time traveller herself, she has appeared in my first two books (Out of Time and A Promise to Keep) and will be in several more. She's been living in the twelfth century for over thirty years now and missed drinking tea dreadfully until she found a secret supplier, although you won't hear about that in my next book. She's in her fifties with a great understanding of the human heart, an unusual sense of humour (for a medieval nun) and nothing much phases her - except when the occasional relative from her own time manages to show up (A Promise to Keep).

Which character will we love to hate, and why?
Oh, I'm sure you'll love to hate Prince John. He just can't help himself - although he does like to help himself - to lands and ladies given half a chance. 

Thanks so much for talking us today Loretta!

Here are Loretta's two links:


Friday, 3 August 2018

The Vikings: Raiders or Pirates?

I'm delighted to host author Helen Hollick as she embarks on a voyage across the blogosphere.

Helen has written a series of nautical Voyages based around her fictional pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne and his ship, Sea Witch, but her latest UK release in paperback is a non-fiction book – Pirates: Truth and Tales published by Amberley Press, which explores our fascination with the real pirates and those who are favourites in fiction. Today, Helen drops anchor for another interesting addition to her on-line two-week Voyage around the Blogs with a pirate or two for company…


Raiders? Pirates? Sea Wolves? For the people concerned at the time, I doubt they particularly cared what these terrifying men from the sea were called! To the Anglo-Saxons they were ‘the Danes.’ For the Franks, ‘Northmen’; to the Irish, just ‘foreigners.’ The Slavs knew them as ‘Rus,’ from which we get ‘Russian,’ and the Spanish kept it simple: they were ‘The Heathens.’ Between themselves the ‘Vikings’ were named for the area they came from. What they were not called by their contemporaries was ‘Vikings.’ That term came to be used somewhat later in history.

The word ‘i-viking’ means something like ‘to go raiding’, and basically that is what these skilled seamen from the Scandinavian countries were, expert seamen and part-time raiders. Unlike the Johnny Depp/Jack Sparrow type Pirates of the Caribbean of the early 1700s, the Vikings did not roam the seas in deliberate search of merchant ships, or heavily-laden Spanish treasure ships to prey upon. Nor were the Vikings like the eighteenth century pirates who were deserters and ne-er-do-wells. The Vikings were skilled warriors and even more skilled sailors, with a superb knowledge of seamanship and navigation. They came from Norway, Sweden and Denmark and were a massive nuisance for England for three centuries from about the mid-700s. (They were known and feared in many other countries as well, but I’m sticking to England for this article.) They were finally ‘tamed’ (as far as England was concerned) because of the Norman Conquest by Duke William of Normandy when he won at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Incidentally, ‘Norman’ derives from 'North Man’, the Normans were, in fact, descendants of Viking raiders.

In 1002, King Æthelred II (the Unready) took Emma, the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy, as his wife. His intention was to seal a treaty to ensure that Normandy would cease allowing Vikings to overwinter along the Normandy coast from where they preyed on England. The idea did not work. Æthelred ended up paying the Danes more and more money to ‘go away’ and eventually one Danish King, Cnut, ended up as King of England… married to Æthelred’s widow. Her son by Æthelred, in turn, became King of England in 1052. His name was Edward – later known as the Confessor. 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes much of one of the first (recorded) raids on the English coast by Vikings when it mentions: “…on the ides of June the harrying heathen destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter.” This was in 793, with Lindisfarne one of the holiest places outside of Rome. The attack was witnessed by a monk, Simon of Durham, “… laid everything waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted feet, dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers; some they took away with them in fetters; many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults; and some they drowned in the sea.”

Whether using the term ‘raiding’ or ‘piracy’, the Vikings never intentionally aimed at desecrating the Christian God. Religion had nothing to do with it: a stockpile of gold and riches, virtually undefended, was the sole lure.

In 795, Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland, was raided, then again in 802 and 806, the latter of which saw sixty-eight monks and laymen slaughtered. Ireland, Wales and the other islands of Scotland were also frequently raided. One of the Norse raiders who plundered the Hebrides was Svein Asleifarson. After his raiding on the islands, he sailed to Dublin, capturing two merchant ships en-route and relieving them of their cargo – fine quality broadcloth. Ah, now that was piracy!

Those early raids soon expanded into actual settlement when the Norse started to establish suitable bases for overwintering; places like York, Dublin, Normandy and Novgorod. Their ships – the Longships – were well-built powerful craft with a low, sleek appearance that could glide through the sea or along shallow rivers. They could be easily beached and were light enough to be carried over land if necessary. A rudder was on the steerboard side (which later became ‘starboard’) and had a single mast and sail. No wind? The crew rowed. 

To the astonishment of some experimental archaeologists who had re-crated a full-size longship, during trials they discovered that these ships were capable of being very fast, in fact the accompanying in-shore motor-powered lifeboat had to radio them to slow down – they couldn’t keep up! It was also discovered that in the right conditions and if enough speed was reached the longboat would aquaplane for several yards: row, row, row… skim… row, row, row…skim… 
I think the word formidable fits in here rather nicely!

But were the Vikings opportunists raiders, or were they ruffian pirates? I’ll leave you to decide.

© Helen Hollick

Pirates: Truth And Tales published in paperback in the UK July 2018 and November 2018 in the US – but available for pre-order.

Buy the Books: Amazon Author Page (Universal Link)

Sign up for Helen’s Newsletter and be entered for an annual prize draw. 
One name ‘picked from the hat’ in December will win a £10/$10 Amazon gift voucher.
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Follow Helen’s Tour:
These links will take you to the Home Page of each blog host – Helen says thank you for their interest and enthusiasm! For exact URL links to each article go to Helen’s website:  which will be updated every day of the tour.

30th July: Cryssa Bazos Dropping Anchor to Talk About Pirates
31st July: Anna Belfrage  Ships That Pass…
1st August: Carolyn Hughes Pirates of the Middle Ages
2nd August: Alison Morton From Pirate to Emperor
3rd August: Annie Whitehead The Vikings: Raiders or Pirates?
4th August: Tony Riches An Interview With Helen Hollick (and maybe a couple of pirates thrown in for good measure?)
5th August: Lucienne Boyce Anne and Mary. Pirates.
6th August: Laura Pilli Why Pirates?
7th August: Mary Tod That Essential Element… For A Pirate. 
8th August: Pauline Barclay Writing Non-Fiction. How Hard Can It Be?    
9th August: Nicola Smith Pirates: The Tales Mixed With The Truth
10th August: Christoph Fischer In The Shadow Of The Gallows
11th August: Debdatta What Is It About Pirates?
12th August: Discovering Diamonds It’s Been An Interesting Voyage…
13th August: Sarah Greenwood Amberley Books blog Pirates: The Truth and the Tales 
14th August: Antoine Vanner The Man Who Knew About Pirates


Helen moved from London in 2013 and now lives with her family in North Devon, in an eighteenth century farmhouse. First published in 1994, her passion now is her pirate character, Captain Jesamiah Acorne of the nautical adventure series, The Sea Witch Voyages. Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown) the story of Saxon Queen, Emma of Normandy. Her novel Harold the King (US title I Am The Chosen King) explores the events that led to the 1066 Battle of Hastings. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, set in the fifth century, is widely praised as a more down-to-earth historical version of the Arthurian legend. She has written three non-fiction books, Pirates: Truth and Tales, Smugglers in Fact and Fiction (to be published 2019) and as a supporter of indie writers, co-wrote Discovering the Diamond with her editor, Jo Field, a short advice guide for new writers. She runs the Discovering Diamonds review blog for historical fiction assisted by a team of enthusiastic reviewers.  
Helen is published in various languages. 

Saturday, 28 July 2018

12 Things You Didn't Know about John Knox

This month's guest post is by author Marie MacPherson. Over to you, Marie...

John Knox, the controversial Scottish Reformer, is often portrayed as a cartoon Calvinist who hated women and trumpeted fire and brimstone from the pulpit. However, the notorious Scottish Reformer was a complex character whose life reads more like an adventure thriller than a history. And, love him or loathe him, you cannot deny the impact he has had on Scottish history, culture and psyche. Despite that – or because of that – most people know very little about him. In this article I share some of the surprising things I’ve discovered in my research on Knox for my fictional biography.

Image Attribution
1. Roman Catholic Priest – After studying logic, rhetoric and canon law at St Andrews University Knox was ordained a priest in 1536. With not enough parishes for all the priests, he became a Notary Apostolic, a country lawyer.

2. Bodyguard – In the 1540s he fell under the spell of George Wishart, the charismatic Protestant preacher who ‘pulled him from the puddle of papistry’. He dropped everything to follow his master, taking up a two-handed sword to defend him from persecution by Cardinal David Beaton. When Wishart was arrested and sentenced to burn at the stake, Knox went into hiding.

Knox defending Wishart with a sword
3. Galley Slave – After a year in hiding, Knox was called to St Andrews to preach to the Castilians under siege in the castle for assassinating Cardinal Beaton. Knox was arrested and sentenced to toil in the galleys for 19 months – a fate worse than death. He was not expected to survive but the ailments he contracted vexed him for the rest of his life.

4. Church of England Chaplain – Freed from the galleys, Knox became a preacher in the north of England before being called to London as chaplain to Edward VI. He refused promotion in the English church, turning down the vicarage of All Hallows, London, and the bishopric of Rochester.  

5. Political Exile – When Catholic Mary Tudor ascended the throne, Knox fled persecution to Geneva where he became even more Calvinist than Calvin. The Swiss reformer considered his polemical tract The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women too inflammatory with its call to depose ungodly female monarchs. 

Image Attribution Link
6. Babe Magnet – The First Blast, denouncing female rule for being contrary to natural and divine law, has forever labelled Knox a rampant misogynist, even though he only voiced what most men of his time believed – that women were inferior creatures and not suited to wielding power – only much more vociferously. In fact, he loved women’s company – as his tender letters to his mother-in-law and correspondent, Anna Locke reveal – and women were drawn to him. Like Billy Graham, he must have had some charisma! 

7. Author and Translator – As well as his History of the Reformation in Scotland and polemical pamphlets, Knox worked briefly with Miles Coverdale on the English translation of the Geneva Bible.

8. Agent Provocateur – With a network of spies that William Cecil, the English spymaster would envy, Knox was often the first in Scotland to find out about important events such as the death of Francis II, Mary Queen of Scots’ first husband, and David Riccio’s murder. However, he was more provocative than secret as an agent. 

9. Husband and Father – Knox was married twice – both times to teenagers. His first wife, Marjory Bowes, who bore him two sons, died at the tragically young age of 25. At the age of fifty, he married 17-year-old Margaret Stewart, a distant relative of Mary Queen of Scots who was furious when she found out about her new in-law. Meg bore him three daughters. 

Image Attribution
10. Marriage Guidance Counsellor – while Knox often clashed with Queen Mary on religious matters – on a more personal level, they joined forces to try and reconcile the queen’s half-sister with her errant husband. But did they have an affair – as one questioner asked at one of my talks. The jury is still out.

11. Social Reformer – Knox co-authored The First Book of Discipline, a manifesto for the Reformed Scottish church, which proposed a school in every parish, a network of ministers and a system of poor relief. He assumed the Kirk would take over the Roman Catholic Church’s revenues, but he did not factor in the greed of the power-hungry lords. Thomas Randolph, the English envoy, considered his democratic vision to be centuries ahead of its time.

12. Parking Lot Burial – At the age of 59, Knox died in his bed surrounded by his family – and not atop a burning pyre as he always feared. He was buried in St Giles’ cemetery, his grave marked by Parking Lot No 23 in the High Street. 

Marie MacPherson 2018

Thank you so much for this insightful post, Marie. You can find out more about Marie's books here at Penmore Press