Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Author Interview with novelist, Helen Spring

Helen Spring is the author of among other things, The Chainmakers, Memories of the Curlew and Strands of Gold. I am delighted that she has agreed to let me interview her for my blog. Both a wonderful writer and friend, she has offered vital assistance to my own career and I hope that the tips and advice she offers will be useful to all my readers.

Strands Of Gold takes the reader from the shores of England to colonial Singapore and on to the gold fields of Kalgoorlie in Australia.
Lucy Rowland’s childhood comes to an abrupt end when she returns home from England to Singapore to find her father and her childhood home at risk of financial ruin. Although on the verge of losing her heart to Greg Lamont she is coerced instead into marriage with the rich and powerful Sir Gilbert Howell. Lucy withstands the brutality of marriage to Gilbert until freed by the violent intervention of her uncle Matthew.
Together with childhood friend, Jarvis, Lucy and her uncle flee to Australia where, with new identities, they attempt to start a new life. Lucy’s new found peace and prosperity is destroyed when she challenges the corruption of the wool trade and makes a new enemy in the shape of George Carmody. As her past threatens to overwhelm her she is whisked from danger and embarks on yet another journey with her rescuer.

Helen Spring weaves a wonderful tale of adventure and love that immediately emerges the reader in Lucy’s world. Her language is rich and tasteful, like good chocolate, and the well-drawn characters exist within a fully realised setting. This is a story of love and friendship and as the strands of gold wrap around you, you will found yourself totally absorbed. This novel does not let go until the end is reached and Lucy’s story lingers long after the last page is turned.
Works by Helen Spring include:

The Chain Makers: ISBN: 978-0-59544765-7

Strands of Gold ISBN: 978-1-907986-16-9

Memories of the Curlew ISBN: 978-1-84923-490-0

Hi Helen

Welcome to my blog and thank you for agreeing to an interview.
As you know I am already a fan of your work and greatly enjoyed your medieval novel, Memories of the Curlew, featuring Gwenlian, the twelfth century Welsh princess and her battles with the Normans. I came to Strands of Gold with great expectations and I wasn’t at all disappointed.

First of all can you tell us a bit about yourself, when you began to write, your ambitions, your experiences of the process of becoming a published author? I have a lot of aspiring author friends and I know they will appreciate any tips you can offer.

I have always written, but when I was young it was just articles and short stories, to fit in with earning a living. I did not start to write novels until I took very early retirement to look after my elderly mother. When Mum had a nap after lunch each day, I would write for a couple of hours, and I wrote my first two novels in that way. I then had lots of very complimentary rejections! They always said things like ‘We love this but....’ The best tip I can give is to write the kind of thing you enjoy yourself, in that way you develop your own distinctive voice.

And you certainly have a strong voice. I think what makes Strands of Gold great for me is its unique story and setting. It took me to some very unexpected places. Where did you come up with the idea and the setting? Have you been to the places you write about?

I love the period from about 1880 – 1920, and originally I wanted to write about Colonial India, but then I decided that writers like Paul Scott and John masters had done it all so well already. I investigated Singapore and found that was interesting too, and the story came to me. I had never been to Singapore or Australia at the time, although I have now. When you are writing history, the settings will be so different from today, and so I feel a good archive makes for better research than any personal visits. For example, I found some wonderful letters which were written from English emigrants in Australia back to their families in Britain, where they described their feelings about the strange new world, making it possible to see Australia through their eyes.

When I was reading it I really bonded with Lucy straight away. She is a great character. In some novels with a female lead, the feminine characters can emerge as a bit insipid, indecisive, soppy even but Lucy is none of these things, without being too feisty she is a perfectly balanced, believable character. Did you base her on anyone you know?

Gosh! I find the question a little embarrassing because I really didn’t base her on anyone at all, I just made her up. I think I was perhaps looking to myself for the kind of reaction I would have to Lucy’s various troubles. I suppose I can be a bit feisty, but I don’t think I’m particularly well balanced. I go off at a tangent sometimes, but usually come down again fairly quickly. Perhaps Lucy behaves as I wish I had done when I was younger!

I know from personal experience how much research is necessary for a period novel and I often find I do far more than I need and end up with reams of notes that are never used or referred to. Do you have any tips for streamlining the background reading?

Yes, the research can become so interesting you never want to start the writing! With hindsight, I think it is best to read two or three books on your subject first, to get a ‘feel’ for it, and then just start writing. If I get stuck about something, I just type in ‘INFIL LATER’ and carry on. When you have got the story down and have your first draft, you can go through and look up what you still need. I think this saves a lot of time.

That is a great tip; I will use it! Now, I have to ask about your sexy male lead, Greg Lamont; he is drop dead gorgeous. Is he a figment of your imagination or do you have your own Greg stashed away at home? You don’t have to answer that!

Wow! I wish I did! Yes, he is rather gorgeous isn’t he? I was quite in love with him when I was writing the book. Greg is entirely a figment of my imagination, but he’s given me lots of fun in spite of that! I have never met a real man quite so dishy, but I can always hope!

He may be waiting just around the next corner, Helen! In the second part of the novel when Lucy is in the outback you can almost taste the dust and feel the flies biting. How did you manage to come up with such a realistic depiction?

I think I just put myself into Lucy’s place and imagined to myself what it must feel like. This is the kind of detail you can fill in when you do your re-write, to make the description really intense. Sometimes I find it useful to get out the Roget’s thesaurus and look up a few words, and get lots of alternatives to consider, to make it all become richer and more detailed.

Good old thesaurus, where would we be without one? I know followers of my blog will want to know what you are working on now and when it will be available. Can you give us some teasers?

At the moment I’m working on a sequel to an earlier novel, ‘The Chainmakers’. It is set in occupied Rome during the Second World War. It is intended to be a great love story, but at the moment the war keeps getting in the way! (Which I suppose it would have done at the time!) I am only into the eighth chapter, but have done all the research, so I hope to crack on and perhaps get it finished for Spring next year.

I shall look forward to it. That is brilliant, Helen, thank you. I wish you all the luck in the world and I am waiting impatiently for your next novel.

Thank you so much for inviting me.

It was my pleasure. More details of Helen’s work can be found on her website: http//www/helenspring.co.uk

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Cwrtnewydd Scribblers Presents ...

Cwrtnewydd village lies between Lampeter and Newcastle Emlyn, huddled about a small Welsh river in the Cledlyn Valley. It is essentially a farming hamlet and, although there is no longer any shop, the pub has closed and only the school remains (for now) the inhabitants manage to maintain a sense of community. The village has its historical roots in farming and the woollen industry but, more recently, the village has welcomed incomers from the world over. Living in a remote area has its benefits peaceful vistas, solitude and tranquillity, but there are also drawbacks. We are all vulnerable to accidents and every villager, directly or indirectly, has benefited from the service supplied by the Air Ambulance.

I have lived here for sixteen years. You can see from the picture that it can be an isolated lifestyle. Luckily, I love the peace; it enables me to write undisturbed and the ever-shifting moods of the countryside inspires and colours my work. Writing is a solitary, often lonely occupation and for many years I thought I was the only writer living in Cwrtnewydd. You can imagine my delight to discover that, not only were there other writers but they also held a flourishing writer’s group every Monday.

Two years ago I plucked up all my courage and asked to join them. There were five members at that time and they welcomed me with open arms and I have since found excellent friendship, support and encouragement. I had never before joined a group, unless you include creative writing classes with Dic Edwards at Lampeter University and, without hesitation, I would recommend that all writers join or form a group. It will help your focus, objectivity and provide a critique service for your embryonic manuscript.

We call ourselves the Cwrtnewydd Scribblers and in 2010, after receiving a most welcome grant from the The Co-Op Community Fund, which paid for the ISBN numbers, we put our heads together to come up with a collection of work.
Although it is the first I have been involved in, Of Cake and Words is Cwrtnewydd Scribblers’ second collection, comprised of poetry, short stories and anecdote. The group is responsible for every aspect of the publication from the cover design to the forming of the publishing company, Cledlyn Publications. The book is a non-profit based venture with fifty pence of the cover price going to Air Ambulance, Wales by way of acknowledgement of the invaluable service they provide to rural communities. The Cwrtnewydd Scribblers will be attending the Lampeter Winter Fair on November 27th where copies of the book and other works by our members will be available.

If you are unable to attend, copies are obtainable from any member of the group contactable via our webpage: http://www.cwrtnewyddscribblers.webs.com/. Priced £3.50

Cwrtnewydd Scribblers, Of Cake and Words, (Lampeter: University of Wales Press: Cledlyn Publications, 2010)

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Saxon Church at Escomb

A few weeks ago we visited my sister in Northumberland. Our visits there are more of a pilgrimmage than anything else for, although neither of us are overly religious, we share a love of ancient churches and on every opportunity can be found rummaging in the undergrowth of old burial grounds.

Our photograph albums are full of soaring cathedrals and humble Saxon foundations. I especially love the ones that date back to the beginnings of Christianity and beyond. You can imagine my delight to discover that Escomb church was only an hours drive away from her home in Birtley near Hexham.

We drove through dazzling sunshine, the drab tarmac cutting a path through stunning countryside, and crossed the border into County Durham. We eventually discovered Escomb some mile and a half outside Bishop’s Auckland. I have never been so surprised at the location of an ancient monument in my life.

Rather like Neath Abbey the modern world has crowded in upon Escomb and where I had expected to find a secluded place for quiet contemplation, what I found instead was that Escomb church, complete with its oval pre- christian enclosure, stands in the middle of a 1960’s housing estate.
A notice on the gate informed us that the keys were to found hanging on a hook outside number 26 Saxon Green. The clean lines of the modern buildings, the parked cars and satelite dishes constrasted sharply with the rustic peace still discernible within the precinct walls.

The church has stood for some 1300 years, making it one of only three surviving Saxon churches in England. The world has evolved, the church has witnessed Viking occupation, Norman invasion, reformation, pestilence, industrial revolution and yet the village has still managed to thrive and grow from a few humble monastic cells into a modern day community.
During the 1960’s existing dwellings were modernised and forty new houses and bungalows were built. The pub, The Saxon Inn, that stands opposite the church provided us with a very tasty lunch.
The improvements that dragged the village from squalor into comfort, mercifully left the church and the churchyard intact and, today, the church stands as a monument to the continuity of religious belief from pagan times, through religious and social change.
The date of the church’s foundation is uncertain but experts estimate the latter part of the seventh century. The first mention of Edicum village in the historical record comes at the end of the tenth century when it was mortgaged to Viking earls by the Bishop of Durham but, from the style and size of the building it is agreed that the church was built considerably earlier than this. To put its age into context, when the mighty Cathedral at Durham was built, Escomb had already been standing for 500 years.

Today, apart from the hideous modern furniture inside, a visit to the church is like stepping into another world, and not just a Saxon world. The chisel marks belong to builders and masons from Roman Britain for much of the building stone was taken from the fort at Binchester some two hundreds years after the Romans withdrew.

The rough and squarely hewn stone still bear the criss crossed marks of Roman broaching and painted decoration is still visible on the underside of the chancel arch. The long and short style of the stonework is distinctive and the arch is believed to have been reassembled from a Roman one, the stones matched so finely that no mortar was necessary. The painted plaster on the underside of the arch, with its traces of abstract scroll-work is judged to be twelfth or thirteenth century, but the similarites of colour and texture with some similar plasterwork excavated at Jarrow suggests a much earlier date.
The stark whitewashed interior we see today is a comparably modern innovation and high up on the north wall are the remains of a fresco, believed to have represented four saints, possibly the apostles. These frescos would have covered the whole wall and filled the interior with vivid colour the like of which, in the naturally hued, image free Saxon world, the congregation would never have experienced outside of church.
There are many exquisite features of the celtic religion at Escomb and my personal favourite lies high up on the exterior south wall. The sundial records, not the usual hours of the day but the daylight hours of prayer, Terce, Sext and None that divided the monastic day; a poignant reminder of Celtic devotion in the days before the establishment of the Roman Church.

There are the five small windows dating to the Saxon period. The two on the south wall of the nave and one high up on the west wall have rounded lintels but those on the north wall are straight. All are fashioned to let in the maximum amount of light but also keep out as much wind and rain as possible. They are all of the same basic construction and the lintels are made from single stones. The two lancet windows in the sanctuary and the piscina, a stone bowl for cleaning communion vessals are thought to date from the thirteenth century and in the 17th and 18th Centuries the three largest windows were added; one on the south side, and one on the east and west end.

Most intriguingly one of the small Saxon windows on the north wall bears a Roman inscription which reads ‘Bono rei pulicae nato’ or ‘to the man born for the good of the state’. It is believed that this stone originally formed the base for a roman statue or possibly is the remains of an ornate milepost erected in honour of the Emperor. To the Saxon builders the stone was simply a conveniently pre dressed piece of building material, they set it high up and upside down and, as a result, this stone with its inscription remained unnoticed until spotted by an eagle eyed school boy in the 1960’s.

The style of the north door is of celtic origin and, due to the way the stone has been dressed it has been suggests that it may have come complete from the Roman fort at Binchester.

The alterations and maintenance made over the years have not detracted from the integrity of the church’s origins. The exterior north wall remains more as less as the Saxons built it, solid, square and untouched by thirteen centuries of change. The height of the walls and the reason why the stones in the upper courses are smaller than those lower down remain a conundrum. The height and the ground plan point to possible Irish Celtic influences and a connection with ancient Gallic chapels has been suggested.
Another connection with Irish-Celtic church building is the incised consecration cross. It is now set behind the altar but may once have formed part of a standing cross or possibly a 9th century grave cover. Some have suggested that it is, in fact, part of a much earlier ‘preaching cross’ that predates the church and has its origins in the very first days of Christianity in Britain.
Escomb is a little gem from our shared heritage where echoes of our celtic past can be heard quite distinctly above the hubbub of the modern world. Although it is small and will take no more than an afternoon to fully explore I would urge anyone to place Escomb Church very high on their ‘places to visit’ list.

Friday, 29 October 2010

The Queen of Last Hopes


Susan Higginbotham

A Review by Judith Arnopp

In 1445, aged fifteen, Margaret of Anjou was married to King Henry VI of England, a marriage intended to restore peace between France and England. When Henry declined into madness eight years later, the heavily pregnant Margaret was drawn to the forefront of English politics. In stepping from her prescribed feminine role to oppose the claims of the Yorkist faction she became a target for enemy propaganda. Her fierce protection of her son, Edward of Lancaster, and her refusal to admit defeat did not attract acclaim, as would have been the case had she been a man, instead she was accused of a variety transgressions.
Since the Wars of the Roses Margaret of Anjou has been seen as a vengeful, violent figure. Shakespeare presented her as an adulterous bitch whose natural female instinct for nurture was corrupted to homicide. Later historians and novelists have taken this opinion of Margaret and run with it and in numerous works she appears as a virulent, unnatural woman, a ‘she wolf’ meddling in the affairs of men. Recently, however, there have been revisions of Margaret’s character, a reassessment of her actions and a more balanced, detached view of her is emerging.
Susan Higginbotham’s novel, The Queen of Last Hopes, is spawned of this revisionist opinion. The tale is told from a Lancastrian perspective, multi-narrated by Margaret herself and various members of her retinue.
Although meticulously researched Higginbotham’s Margaret is, for me, unconvincing. In trying to negate the slander I feel the character emerges as ‘too nice for words,’ as my mum would say. Recorded instance of brutality are glossed over or excused and so she emerges almost as saintly as her husband, King Henry.
I also found that, in many areas, Higginbotham’s research gets in the way of a good story. I wanted to feel blades slicing through flesh, the horror of cousin fighting cousin, the raw, tearing grief of losing a child. Instead the trauma of Margaret’s experiences seem twice, even thrice removed. I did not hear her voice and received instead an anaesthetised account.
On the whole I found the male characters more convincing. The Duke of Somerset, Henry Beaufort, slightly rakish, foolhardy, is likeable because of his flaws and a far more comfortable read than Margaret. King Henry’s complex mix of confusion, religious dedication and loyalty makes him a likeable king, touchingly naive. And Margaret’s son, Edward of Lancaster’s honest narration and unfortunate end is just as well rounded and his death painfully poignant.
I appreciate the amount of research that Susan Higginbotham has put into this novel. Most novelists have approached the Wars of the Roses from a Yorkist point of view, I believe and I like the refreshing Lancastrian perspective. I admire the way Higginbotham dispenses with the propaganda against Margaret but, for me, she shines just a bit too brightly to be real. Also in ignoring the vilification against Margaret it would have been good if she could have done the same with the slanders that the Tudors levelled against the Yorkists but instead, many of the old defamations of Richard of Gloucester and Edward IV remain.
On the whole it is a solid, entertaining read, a little less historical detail and a little more blood and sweat would have improved it for me but, there, I am a bloodthirsty girl. The Queen of Last Hopes is a winner and will please Higginbotham’s fans and attract new readers from the adherents of the Lancastrian faction.


Monday, 25 October 2010

Interview with poet, Sue Moules

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing resident Welsh poet, Sue Moules.

Hi Sue, Thank you for agreeing to be guest poet on my blog. Whenever I pick up a volume of poetry I am always wary of what it will contain. Poetry can be wonderful or it can be very, very dreadful. I was so thrilled when I first read yours, it absolutely sings. You present a unique view of the world and take the reader beyond the obvious and turn the mundane into something special. What was it that made you realise you had this ability and what first prompted you to write?

I started writing poetry when I was about eight. I always enjoyed reading and loved the poem, Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. My grandfather, Frank Longfellow, said we were related to the American poet, but I don’t think we are. I wrote poetry because I found stories difficult. However, I did win the Brooke Bond prize at school for a story, with my friend, Sheena, coming second. The headmaster had expected her to win and had read her story out to the school. Sheena and I used to write poems together - one line each - in small red Memo books.

Ooh, you may be surprised; you should trace your family tree and find out if you are related to Longfellow, maybe that is where you get your talent. So, you have written from childhood, how long was it before you were first published and how did it feel?

My first poem to be published was in the local paper w hen I was a child, back in the 1960’s. The poem was called Trees and it rhymed. I was very excited to see my poem in print. I got a 2/6d postal order which seemed like a fortune. My first literary publication was in 1982 in Poetry Wales. It felt good to be in the company of published poets, and knowing that my work had made the standard. I had been trying since I graduated from University in 1979, so it had cost a lot in postage and rejections.

What about your main influences, tell us about them.

I like to say that I am influenced by no one and everyone but obviously everything read is an influence. I studied English Literature at University and read a lot of dead male poets. I wrote my dissertation on Sylvia Plath. Since then I have discovered many women poets such as Elizabeth Bishop and Mary Oliver and many male poets.

I know you have several books published, can you tell us about the latest ones and perhaps which are your favourites?

My favourite book is always the most recent, so The Earth Singing (Lapwing) published in August 2010. Although getting a box of The Copyright of Land (National Poetry Foundation), my first book after three pamphlets, back in 2000 was exciting.

Your poems are very evocative, you seem to see the world in quite a unique way, or at least to be able to describe it in a more colourful manner than most people. Is this something that came naturally or did you have to learn to do it?

I think that going on courses helps define one’s work and encourages it to be more outgoing. My themes tend to be introspective, although I would see myself as a nature poet. My poems are full of colour because I would have liked to have been good at art. I think a poet never stops learning and that comes from hearing other poets and reading other poets.

And each new experience presumably alters the way we see the world and learn from it. What keeps you motivated and where do you look for support?

I go through phases when I’m not motivated, when I think I’m wasting my time, but then, when I manage to craft a piece that works and isn’t “chopped up prose” I feel I’ve achieved something.
I think a form can help to achieve this. As a child I loved those square puzzles which had a picture broken down into smaller squares. You had to move the squares around to make the picture complete. Another of my favourite games was a small hand held solitaire game, with small blue plastic markers. The aim being to achieve one marker in the centre of the game. Years later I enjoyed précis at school, reducing words down to their basics. All good grounding for a poet. I find it hard to write a long piece. A poem that goes over the page is an achievement for me. I find it hard to write prose, as I want to get to the kernel of the story.
At primary school we read ballads, The Highwayman, The Ballad of Patrick Spens, The Ancient Mariner, Hiawatha etc. I do like to have story in my poems, and it probably comes from this early grounding.
I was lucky to have excellent English teachers at the three secondary schools I attended. At ‘O ‘level we studied Six Modern Poets, living poets, and my favourite poem was Relic by Ted Hughes. I hadn’t come across Hughes before, or Philip Larkin - his “blackbird /astonishing the brickwork“ was just a fantastic observation that I remember often.
I also studied Elizabeth Jennings. I knew that Christina Rossetti and Emily Bronte had been poets, but Elizabeth Jennings was a living female poet. It was good to see that women could be poets too.
At University English Literature ended with W.H. Auden but my knowledge of contemporary poetry has come from subscribing to magazines and reading. I first went to poetry readings at University and started to buy poetry books then. Unfortunately, back in the 1970s there weren’t creative writing degrees.

Are you a member of any writing groups?

I belong to so many groups I never have time to write! I seem to be a real groupie. It is hard to be a writer in isolation and, by meeting up with other like-minded people, you are able to talk shop, which of course keeps you motivated. I attend workshops and try to go on a writing course every year if I can afford to. Being with other writers can be inspiring and having the space to write is important. Often I write and think it’s “a so what piece” and often it is, but occasionally I write something I’m really pleased with.

If you don’t mind, I would like to include an example of your poetry in this blog, can you suggest one that means a great deal to you and explain why?

The following poem is from The Earth Singing, it is a mirror poem, and took some crafting.

On The Night of A Full Moon

This is a spell to make things right:
plant when the moon is waxing,
harvest when the moon is waning.
The eyes of the cat are copper circles,
its feline body sussurates along the cold pavement.
As I name the stars and planets,
call on their wisdom,
the continuity of sky,
crunch of autumn leaves on grass,
short days and dark nights.

Short days and dark nights.
crunch of autumn leaves on grass,
the continuity of sky.
Call on their wisdom,
as I name the stars and planets.
Along the cold pavement.
its feline body sussurates,
the eyes of the cat are copper circles.
Harvest when the moon is waning.
plant when the moon is waxing,
This is the spell to make things right.

In the past 10 years Ceredigion, where I live, has started to celebrate the fact that Dylan Thomas lived in the area by putting up plaques to show where he lived. One day driving into Aberaeron there was a cut out model of the poet standing outside the bookshop. As well as being surprised and shocked, I thought it quite surreal, especially as Dylan Thomas had not been given such acclaim when he was alive and so I wrote the poem “I Labour by Singing Light” taken from his ‘In my Craft and Sullen Art.’

‘I Labour by Singing Light’ From ‘In my Craft and Sullen Art’ by Dylan Thomas.

Outside Bookworm in Aberaeron
Dylan Thomas stands
life size in his sepia photo,
dead before he was forty.

‘Yes, I remember the boyo
left a tax bill,
and at the Seahorse in New Quay
he never paid his tab.’

We are all keen to claim him now,
put up blue porcelain plaques
on the places he visited,
the houses he rented.

‘Drunkard, womaniser, waster’
they called him then.

All summer this cut out
has done the rounds,
famous not for poetry
but for drink and a film
that has taken truth and made fiction.

In his singing light
he might have laughed
to be standing on Alban Square
stopping traffic.

Lovely, Sue, thank you so much for sharing them with us. If any of my readers wish to purchase a volume of your work, can you tell me where they are available?

My poetry books are available from Amazon or direct from me: sue@stampless.co.uk. I prefer to sell them myself as there is little money in poetry and I’d prefer it went to me or my publishers rather than Amazon. Amazon is quick, easy and efficient and I enjoy using it myself, but I always try and buy friends’ books direct from them.

Copyright Sue Moules 2010

Friday, 22 October 2010

Coming Soon - author interview with Sue Moules.

The fabulous poet, Sue Moules, author of, among others, The Green Seascape, The Copyright of Land and The Earth Singing has promised to be a guest on my blog next week. I look forward to chatting with her. If anyone has any specific questions they would like me to ask on their behalf please contact me on silentwhisper1@aol.com

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Medieval Women – history, historiography and literature.

The Old Testament is full of heroic women; Judith, Deborah and Esther to name but a few but the pages of the New Testament are relatively free of them. As most of you will have heard, medieval society was divided into sections – those who fought, those who worked and those who prayed. The women, omitted from these divisions were subdivided into three categories of their own: Nun, Wife or Whore.

The Anglo Saxon and Medieval Chronicles provide just fleeting glimpses of the women who were so divided. Women had no place in the monastic world and the chroniclers, perpetuating the beliefs of St Paul and Jerome, believed women to be sprung from the loins of Eve, the first perpetrator of human sin. Eve’s temptation had caused the downfall of mankind and as a consequence women were flawed, an evil temptation to lure the otherwise pious menfolk from prayer. Every woman was therefore likely to reform to type and needed to be kept firmly in her place and watched.

Female sexuality was branded as sinful, the only feminine roles acceptable to the church were religious devotion or marriage and the reason they approved the state of marriage was to ensure procreation and to prevent fornication. To avoid the latter the legal age for marriage began at puberty; girls could marry at twelve and boys at fourteen, although betrothal often took place much younger, sometimes while still in the cradle. To prevent women from escaping male supervision those who did not marry were sent into ‘service’ working and earning a living under the jurisdiction of a master.

The Virgin Mary has little to say in the bible, her role is to give life to Christ, nurture him in infancy and attend his death. But, in the medieval period a Marian cult emerged, inflating Christ’s mother to prominence and sanctity. She was promoted by the church, as an aspiration for all females. She was perfect, an untouched mother, fruitful, pure, silent and passive. An unobtainable condition that, quite unsurprisingly, women failed to achieve.

As a result, women in both history and literature appear as either a Mary or an Eve, a saint or a sinner. The chroniclers, unable to justify female accomplishments occurring outside these parameters, either ignored them or gave them only the briefest of notice.

My favourite example of this is Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia, daughter of Alfred the Great. When her husband, Aethelred of Mercia, became ill she ruled the kingdom alone and continued to do so after his death yet, in the chronicles, she is dealt with in just a few lines.

Consequently, one has to dig deep to discover the potent dynastic role that she played. A few modern historians have dealt with her and she is the subject of a handful of, rather bad, novels portrayed as a tragic, saintly figure with over much emphasis placed upon her womanhood. Her reluctance to resume sexual relations with her husband is usually interpreted as a striving for spiritual and bodily purity, it is never once considered that maybe Aetheldred was ugly, smelly or simply no good in bed. I do think the most obvious answer should be considered first.
It is more likely that her abstinence stemmed from a desire to unite the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia after her death. In addition to declining sexual relations with her husband she also made sure her only daughter did not marry and provide Mercia with an heir. Kathleen Herbert in her study ‘Peace weavers and Shield maidens’ says, ‘Æthelflæd made sure it happened, putting the strength of her will on the side of her own family, perhaps even using her own body to bar an independent Mercian dynasty and prepared to sacrifice her own daughter in the same cause. To use the Old English metaphore, Æthelflæd’s peaceweaving, her diplomatic marriage, was ‘of breathtaking brilliance’ but it had a lining of tough, hard-wearing ruthlessness.’[1]

There are just a very few genuine female voices still audible from the Middle Ages. Christine de Pizan, a notable writer and scholar of her day, participated in debates against misogyny and in writing The Treasure of the City of Ladies she presented a strategy that allowed all women, regardless of status, to undermine the dominant patriarchal discourse. Of course, it should be noted that she did not embark upon this crusade until she had the fortune to be widowed and enjoy the relative freedom that the widowed state allowed.

If we look to the surviving letters and personal papers from the medieval age we can obtain a clearer picture of real women, and they are not all pleasant. The Paston letters, a collection of papers from a wealthy Norfolk family reveal the turmoil of family politics in the 15th century. Agnes Paston emerges as a hard nosed, controlling woman whose family, even her sons, trod lightly in her presence. When her daughter, Elizabeth, refused to marry the man her family selected for her, Dame Agnes beat her several times a week, and even twice in a day, forbidding her to speak to anyone.

The prospective groom was Stephen Scrope, a man of fifty who confessed to having ‘suffered a sickness that kept me a thirteen or fourteen years en-suing, whereby I am disfigured in my person and shall be whilst I live'.
I am not surprised that Elizabeth wasn't keen but, after several weeks of seclusion and beatings, she consented, although in the end the marriage did not take place and the beatings she suffered were for nothing. There is no record of whether her eventual marriage was happy or not.
Another Paston, Margery, betrothed herself without permission, to the family steward and, although the Pastons went to great lengths to free her from it, they could find no legal impediment. As a consequence her mother turned her out of the house and refused to have anything to do with her again. Interestingly, her husband, Richard Calle, continued in the family’s employ; good stewards obviously being harder to replace than daughters.

The few records we have looked at here, largely recorded by men, the medieval women are so imbibed with the social ethos of the day that they do not provide a glimpse of how women were but only of how they were supposed to be. And it is little different in the literature.
Medieval literary females emerge either as unlikely saintly figures, peace weavers or mothers, women who obey. Women like Wealhtheow in Beowulf who “went her rounds / queenly and dignified, decked out in rings / offering the goblet to all ranks, / treating the household and the assembled troop” (Beowulf 620-624).
The poet shows Wealhtheow fulfilling her prescribed role as queen but we do not get to know her.. She remains an object, valued maybe, and beautiful to look on but her thoughts and feelings are irrelevant.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the evil women of literature. Shakespeare’s Queen Marguerite wife to Henry vi, the ‘she-wolf’ who had the temerity to step outside her prescribed role to fight for her son’s crown. Lady Macbeth who subverted the ideal of feminine nurture to tempt her husband to regicide, taking life instead of giving it. The beautiful lady at Bertilak’s castle in Sir Gawain and the Green knight who enters Gawain’s chamber to tempt him with her sexual charm. Queen Guinevere who, although possessing all the attributes expected in a medieval queen, commits adultery, betrays Arthur and brings down the kingdom. Ultimately, of course, in Beowulf we have Grendel’s mother, a grotesque parody of maternity, fighting for her offspring with loathsome determination, revealing quite graphically the depths to which women can stoop, given the provocation.

It is not until the 18th century that literary female figures begin to emerge as properly rounded, intelligent, forward thinking people. This new portrayal of women coincides with both the advent of the narrative novel and female writers.

Initially women were depicted from a male perspective, the literary tradition of either saint or sinner remaining largely unchanged. The virtuous Pamela Andrews in Samuel Richardson’s Virtue Rewarded, a Mary figure who refuses the violent overtures of her employer until he offers her marriage, contrasts very nicely with the Eve-like erotic adventures of Mrs Fanny Hill.
Amongst others, Jane Austen depicted the life and social niceties of the 18th -19th centuries from a female perspective, revealing that there was really very little else, other than marriage, to occupy the female mind. Her satirical descriptions of the society in which she lived reveal her conscious realisation, and proof, that there should be more to women than previously thought.
Even Dickens, one of my favourites, had his stereotypes, silly women, helpless angels and evil harridans and it is not until one of his last novels, Our Mutual Friend that Lizzie Hexham provides a more credible figure who takes control but even she, I find, is quite unconvincingly ‘nice.’
It is not until the Bronte’s that we find complex female characters, in control of their own destinies, self-motivated, strong women with whom we can still identify.

History, historiography and literature has done much to obscure what medieval women were really like, they only show us what they were supposed to be. We can see from the Paston Papers that there were rebels, just as there will always be and they demonstrate quite graphically what punishment these women could expect.

The real question is whether human nature has changed very much. I don’t think it has. Social expectations may have tried to force a woman down a particular path but that doesn’t mean that they all went easily or willingly. It is perfectly possible that, in many instances, she skipped over the fence and took the back path to discover her own desires.

When I am writing fiction I remove my historian’s cap and put on my fiction one. My novels are to entertain, I want them to appeal to modern day female readers and so I step away a little from the records and largely ignore the masculine precepts within them and consider how I would have reacted in the circumstances. Would I willingly share the bed of an obnoxious bully, bear his children, accept his authority even though he be a fool? I can think of nothing more likely to drive me to infidelity and we have proof that women did ignore the inevitable consequences and jump in with both feet.

Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife’s personal creed was, ‘No other will than his’ but that didn’t stop her from creeping from the decrepit old king’s bed and into the arms of Thomas Culpepper. It is a shame she wasn’t clever enough to get away with it.

Everyone alive today knows that sexual attraction is an extremely powerful thing. When the blood is hot, the right man (or woman’s) arms can negate even the threat of eternal damnation. It does so now and it did then. So, if we are to believe that medieval women were never tempted, never gave in to sexual desire or broke free of the patriarchal restrictions placed upon them to get what they wanted, then we are talking about a species apart.

[1] Herbert, Kathleen, Peace-weavers and Shield-Maidens (Swaffham: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006)

Monday, 11 October 2010

Do I enjoy being a writer?

Over the weekend somebody asked me if I enjoyed being a writer. It isn't something I've given much thought to, it is rather like being asked if I enjoy being a woman. It is just something I am.

Of course there have been days when I've said, 'I wish I were a man,' but I think it was a case of the grass being greener over there :) There are also days when I think,' Blow this for a game of soldiers, I shall become a politician or an environmentalist or a gardener,' but I wouldn't really. A writer is what I am and even if I gave up the struggle for publication, I would still be a writer, my stories and characters just wouldn't leave me alone, they demand to be written. I am their servant.

My favourite writing days are rainy ones, which is fortunate for someone living in West Wales. I love being snug indoors while the rain lashes the windows, the dogs snore at my feet and the clock ticks loudly on the mantle piece. It is the only time I am ever 'Just Judy.' I can lose myself in another world. A goodly supply of coffee and a few biscuits and I am happy as Larry - have you ever wondered who Larry is and why he is happy?

I lay awake at night sometimes, worrying about my characters and how I will manoeuvre them through their journey. Or I suddenly realise that I have made a horrible error of some kind and have to get up to fix it or scribble a message to myself in my bedside notebook to fix it first thing. I even enjoy the editing, its like smoothing the rough edges from a carving, shaving unneccessary words and punctuation; honing the manuscript until it is as perfect as I can make it.

When I self published Peaceweaver I enjoyed that too. Reformatting the document to suit the printer, deciding on the cover, (big mistake as it turned out but I live and learn), interacting with other self publishers, stealing their tips and learning from their mistakes, supporting them as they supported me.

I enjoy on-line self-promotion too, like this blog, chatting about my experiences, creating my webpage, making friends on Facebook. If I hadn't formed any exterior contacts I would never have learned how to find an agent, how to make my work stand out. Other writers are immensley supportive and I hope that I return that in some measure. I always try to review and comment constructively and share any tiny snippet of information that may prove valuable to others.

The only aspect of being a writer that I do not enjoy is marketing. I don't like selling myself, it feels like boasting and I dearly wish that people would just stumble across my work and love it.

Being intensely shy is very difficult and it is easy for people to read a lack of self confidence as a lack of belief in my writing, but that assumption is inaccurate. I love my work, I know what I am trying to say and try to say it as concisely and with as much impact as possible. I can do this easily via a keyboard but have recently learned that I am going to have to stand up in a hall full of people and promote my work, read from it and answer their questions.

I have spoken to large audiences before on exterior matters but that is so different to speaking about my writing. My work and the reasons for writing it are intensely personal. In the words of Mick Jagger I am going to have to 'stick my pen in my heart and spill it all over the stage.'
The prospect has me trembling in my boots and I am seriously considering running for the next elections instead :)

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

My Writing Group

Today I would like to talk about my writing group, The Cwrtnewydd Scribblers. The picture on the left is not one of the members :)

I had lived in Cwrtnewydd for about 14 years before I discovered it had a writing group. To be honest, we live in such a small farming community that I didn't expect much from it beyond some congenial company and cake, but I have never been so glad I joined anything in my life.

The group was started about eight years ago (I think) by Brenda and most of the original members still attend every week, some write with a view to publishing, others purely for pleasure, some write only prose, others prefer poetry. For me, the best thing about the group, apart from the cake, is the support. We go over work together, making constructive criticism and suggesting changes and generally nudging each other on which helps us all to think positively. Negativity is strictly not allowed.

Every week, unless it is held at my house, I walk along the pretty country lanes to either Margaret or Rachael's house. I pass wild flowers, meadows, trees, cattle and cottages that seem to doze in the afternoon sunshine. Once we are all assembled we gather about a table and take out our pads and pencils.
Brenda writes wonderful mystical stories and has recently had her first book of poetry, Late Blackberries, published by Lapwing. She is currently working on a romantic novel.

Rachael's ambition is to be published in the Romance market and I feel it in my bones that that day is not long away. She posted a very strong entry into the recent competition held by M&B and is sure to do well. Her male leads are very interesting indeed ...I wonder where she carried out her research :)

Margaret concentrates on short, very witty stories which often surprise us with a nifty punch or a jaw dropping surprise at the end.

Sue Moules is a poet of some standing in our part of the world, she has had many volumes published, her latest The Earth Singing is available now from Amazon and other book stores.

Iris is compiling memoirs of her childhood in Dorset which, so far, makes compelling reading. The anecdotes are peppered with small instances of social history that should not be forgotten.

Most of you know my genre of choice so I won't go into detail on it. Before I joined Cwrtnewydd Scribblers I was alone, writing for my own pleasure and my husband was the only person to see it. I had submitted a few, badly prepared manuscripts but had no real clue how to go about it. Since joining I have had Peaceweaver and a volume of poetry, Waving at Trains, published. I have learned to shamelessly self-publicise myself and the group, we all have websites and blogs and I how have an extensive catalogue of work AND an agent. I think we have all learned that it is better to write as part of a group.

The HOT NEWS is that Cwrtnewydd Scribblers is publishing a collection of their work, the profits of which are going to Air Ambulance, Wales. The booklet is to be called Of Cake and Words and is an eclectic mix of short stories and poetry.

For further information contact me or visit our web page: www.freewebs.co.uk/cwrtnewyddscribblers

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Story Teller or Historian?

I read a lot of reviews, both of my own work and that of others. Sometimes, if I have enjoyed a book enough, I will review it, if I don't like it, I keep quiet. I have noticed in the course of my reviewing how very harsh some reviewers are.

I am not talking about constructive criticism, which is always welcome, but churlish, sometimes nasty nit picking. My mother taught me that if you can't say something nice then it is best to refrain from comment, so I am often greatly shocked at the destructiveness of some reviews.

Every writer, be he good or bad, puts his soul into his work and deserves respect for that. I have read comments that could, at the very least, make a writer throw away his pen for good when all he may need is a few more revisions, a little more polish. If a person has the urge to write then write he jolly well should and sit-at-home-on-their-bums-reviewers should bear that in mind.

I have never had a nasty review myself (yet) luckily, the people who don't like my work have been brought up as I have. Admittedly there are some dreadful novels out there, full of inaccuracies but everyone makes mistakes. It is not a crime. We are all on a learning curve.

The criticism that bugs me most is, 'well that would not have happened' or 'this did not happen that way, it happened this way.' What these critics are forgetting is that 'History is bunk,' made up of opinion, hypothesis and supposition. Historians can only guess at what it was really like.

We can't know what it was like to live in a wooden hall with no santitation, no medicine, faced with famine, childbirth, pestilence and war. Novelists are only guessing, just like the historians and the written record only provides a useful glimpse into the past. In many cases the chronicles are the work of just one man, one opinion, one view of events and every view is biased one way or another. There must have been a million alternative undocumented perspectives and, when it comes to women, well, nobody bothered to document them.

One criticism I have had in the past is that my women are too forceful. 'Women had to do as they were told,' being the usual cry. But we dont know that, we know that were expected to behave in a certain way but that doesnt mean that they did. We have expectations of our youth today but I dont know many who live up to them.

There are plenty of instances where women have acted outside the acceptable parameters of their society, women who led armies, betrayed and brought down their husbands rule, undermined a kingdom. It is these women I keep in mind as I write.

I have always read historical novels and I still do. I love them. There are a number of authors that rank high in my estimation but there are also those who don't. I grew so sick of simpering heroines falling at the feet of superdooper males that, in the end, I invented my own.

I present my women in, shall we say, difficult circumstances and they fight back, with what ever weapons are to hand be it by way of the sword or their sexuality. Their object is to survive. They are often grumpy, argumentative and selfish - just like real people. And I try to make the male leads multi-faceted too, you won't find anyone entirely nasty or purely innocent in my books because, ultimately, I want them to be human.

Most of my stories take place before or just after the Norman Conquest when women had status and their opinions were valued. Anglo Saxon women were not kept out of view behind castle walls. They played a vibrant, important role in society and in the Celtic parts of Britain it was the spindle, and not the spear, that ruled. Just as it should.

GEtting back to my original question Story Teller or Historian? Well, I think there is a half way place where novelists can illuminate the past in a vivid, moist manner that historians cannot. And, if they stretch reality to fit their story, well, that is ok, just as long as the reader is made aware that the novel is listed under fiction, not fact.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

A Step Forward, or Back?

I have recently been lucky enough to secure myself an agent. Susan Yearwood from the SYLA is a warm hearted and enthusiastic lady and is very excited about my work.
The Representation Agreement has been exchanged and I have placed the final draft of Peaceweaver in her hands. It is now with multiple publishers and we are eagerly waiting for a reply. A long and agnonising six weeks or more of nail biting.

I am not blessed with great self confidence and have never considered myself to be particularly lucky. Life has been a struggle for me so far and I don't really expect any different. Maybe I should have but I have never been one to pray but, boy, am I praying now!
As a result of Peaceweaver being offered elsewhere for publication I have removed the POD version from circulation and so it will no longer be available for order, except for the few copies still available through me. This new step is a large leap forward but right now it feels a bit like a backward one.

Since completing my first novel I tried very hard to secure an agent. I submitted different manuscripts to countless publishers only to receive a, 'Sorry no, its great but not for us' or, 'Sorry, not suitable.' And, what made it harder is that I am sure that, in many cases, it had never even been read. In the end, totally demoralised and spurred on by friends, I decided to self publish.
As it turned out, it was great move and I strongly advise anyone considering it that it helps an author to be noticed and is a great confidence booster. Funded by the Arts Council, I published via You Write On, a literary website that offers critiques and support from other writers. The community is a lively one and I made many friends, one, Helen Spring, author of Memories of the Curlew and Chains of Gold, is especially precious. The publishing process was rapid and the support from Ted and the team invaluable. The day that the author copies of Peaceweaver arrived was one I will never forget, even though, quite typically, I was home alone and had no one to share the initial excitement with.
I really enjoyed having a proper published book available, seeing my author page on Amazon and attending book launches and signings. It somehow made all those lonely hours at the computer worth while, I hadn't been wasting my time.
I now have many friends (I could call them fans but that sounds conceited) that enjoy my writing and constantly ask when The Forest Dwellers will be available. The members at my writing group, The Cwrtnewydd Scribblers, are immensly supportive and spread the word among their own contacts. We attend book fairs and readings and generally have a great time.
I've made a few sales too to offset the costs of publishing and promotion although, sadly, my fortune is still not quite made.
While all the promotion of Peaceweaver was taking place I continuted work on The Forest Dwellers which is now written, edited and the final proofs made. I was all set to go ahead and publish in time for Christmas but, out of the blue, along came Susan, ready and willing to represent me. For a moment I was overwhelmed and scared to let go of the reins and let her take over.
OK, I did send out to many agents from the Writers and Artists Yearbook as advised by countless other writers but I hadn't really held any hope of a positive response!
Am I happy to have a professional person believe in my work enough to sign me up? Of course I am.
Am I sorry that Peaceweaver and The Forest Dwellers will not be filling Christmas stockings this year? Of course I am.
But I have to believe that, with Susan's help, my work will be recognised, Peaceweaver will have a lovely professional cover with my name emblazoned across it in gold embossed letters and that The Forest Dwellers and The Song of Heledd will follow shortly after.
The photograph on the left is Boreas (North Wind) by John Waterhouse. I love this picture and while I was writing Peaceweaver I kept it on the wall beside me. It is how I imagined Eadgyth to look, when I was stuck she helped me out. There are many similar works of art that remind me of the women I write about. So many paintings and so many stories yet to write.
I like to think, it is too early to call it hope, that in years to come the people who like my work will anticipate my next release as much as I look forward to Bernard Cornwells.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

St Brynach's Church, Nevern, Pembrokeshire

I seem to be stumbling upon wonderful small churches lately. At the weekend my old fella and I hitched up the caravan and set off for Pembrokeshire. A whole hour later, all the way in the next county, we arrived at Dinas Island Farm Camping site and set up camp.
That evening we wandered down to the cove to watch the sun slip into the sea; it could have been a breath taking romantic affair but, in actual fact, we sat on a damp seaweed shrouded rock in the companionable silence that only twenty five years together can produce. Together we watched it happen, as it always happens, fresh and different every time.
The sunset was outstanding, the romance, unfortunately, wasn’t but there are compensations. Back at the caravan, while I donned snugly pyjamas and crawled beneath the duvet, my old fella made me hot chocolate and a bedtime snack. In my opinion a much better indication of devotion than insincere romanticisms – he knows the way to my heart.
The next morning we went to St Dogmaels ( I will blog on that another day), onto Poppit Sands for a picnic and a paddle and then I suggested we return to camp via Nevern as I had heard of a churchyard with a standing stone bearing both Ogham and Latin inscriptions.
We parked the car in the shade and walked through the gate. We stopped in our tracks struck by the eerie beauty of the place before progressing along an avenue of ancient Yew. The branches twisted and turned, leaned down to stroke the leaning, mossy headstones beneath. Entranced, camera clicking, we followed the path to the church.
It was not possible to continue without taking photographs, the atmosphere was awesome, particularly as one of the trees is famous as a bleeding yew. This Yew tree 'bleeds' a red liquid that baffles both scientists and arborists. Legend states that the tree has bled in this manner ever since a man was hung from the tree. Some people believe that it will continue to bleed until a Welshman sits on the throne in Nevern Castle. Sadly, that day seems long in coming. Damn those Normans.
Close by the church door is the Vitalianus stone. I love standing stones, I photograph them, draw them, paint them and write them into my novels. I love their age, the atmosphere they emit and the secrets that they keep. This particular one has been dated to the 5th century AD It bears inscriptions in both Latin and Ogham and it is bilingual stones such as this that have helped provide the key to understanding the lost Celtic language of Ogham. I just had to make its acquaintance, I hugged it and traced the marks of the ancient chisel with my finger, helping no doubt to wear it away a little more …but I could not help it!
Brynach was an Irishman who settled in Pembrokeshire, a friend and colleague of St David. The local chieftain of Carn Ingli, whose hillfort that can still be seen on top of the nearby hill, granted him the land for his church. The original church was founded by St Brynach in 540 AD but the present building is believed to be 12th Century in date. The tower is Norman but the rest dates to the 15th –16th century, vastly restored in the 18th and redecorated in 1952.
Luckily elements of ancient days exist in the walls of the church, two stone slabs are embedded in the window sills of the Trewern-Henllys Chapel. The Maglocundus Stone is 62.5 inches long with a portion broken off one end. The inscription is again in both Latin and Ogham and inform us that it is the monument of Maglocunus, son of Clutorius. It dates to the 5th century. It is not a prettily ornate thing, the writing puts me very much in mind of modern day inscriptions made in wet cement but the fact that it was carved so long ago sings out to me and I hover close to it for a long while, making my old fella impatient.
Another stone bears a carving of a cross or possibly a sword. It is in the style of Celtic knot work with two bands of carving interwoven to form the shape. The bumph in the guidebook says the origin is unknown. Above the Vitalianus stone, high up in the wall hides a corbel of a male face, the story it is part of long forgotten. In the reconstructed walls traces of the old windows can be seen and a consecration cross, made when the church was consecrated, is hidden on the exterior wall of the Glasdir Chapel.
Best of all in the church yard is the Great Cross. It has been described as one of the most perfect specimens of its kind, equalled only by Carew Cross and the Maen Achwynfan. It is an impressive thing, thirteen feet high and 24.5 in diameter, the style of decoration points to the 10th or 11th centuries. I am amazed at how well preserved the carving is, particularly the side nearest the church wall that suffers least from the wild, Welsh, weather.
On each of the four sides are blocks of interlaced symbols, representing eternity. Two compartments contain primitive crosses where an error occurs in the pattern. The upper cross having the angulated end of its left upper arm reversed, it is easy to see, once you know where to look, that the adjoining decoration has been adapted to fit.
Errors of this kind are also found in illuminated manuscripts and some historians believe that they were intentional faults incorporated into the design to preserve the artists earthly humility. It didn’t do for a mortal to achieve godlike perfection. I have always liked this explanation for it suits my romantic view of early Celtic Christianity.
The legends of the cross tell us that on the seventh of April each year (St Brynach's feast day) the congregation gathered at the cross, awaiting the return of the first cuckoo. The bird would land on the cross and begin singing to announce the arrival of spring. On one particular occasion the bird fell dead before it could herald in the spring. Of this the chronicler George Owen states, ‘This vulgar tale, although it concerns in some sort church matters, you may either believe or not, without peril of damnation.’

There is so much to see and speak about at Nevern that this blog entry could become tiresome so I will stop now. The best thing is to visit it yourself, it is a tiny building but so rich in history that it transports the visitor from the pre-Christian days of megalithic tombs and Druids through early Celtic Christianity to the coming of the Normans and beyond. Go there, take your time to look around, make discoveries and when you leave please give a donation to help preserve this tiny but sparkling gem of British history.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

St Gwenog's Church, Llanwenog, Ceredigion

For fifteen years I have lived just a stone’s throw from St Gwenog’s church in Llanwenog, Ceredigion but have only recently found the time to go and have a close look. (I will blog another time about the mystery of where time goes to and what can be done to stop it.)

The Church of St Gwenog is delightful and anyone planning a trip to the area should put it on their list of places to visit. It is only a small church and does not take long to explore but entering the church is like stepping into another world.

A memorable battle was fought in Llanwenog in 981, between the Dane, Godfrid, and the native Welsh chieftan, Eineon ab Owain. A battle in which the Danes were totally defeated. Nearby there is a field on a farm named Ty Cam where the engagement is believed to have occurred. The field is called Cae'r Vaes, or roughly translated, ‘the battle field’ so, whether the story has its root in fact or legend, it is somewhere else I have always intended to go. But, once again ‘time’ has been my enemy. I will go there tomorrow, I say, hoping that tomorrow will actually come.

In ancient, pagan times the word ‘Llan’ was used to denote an enclosure or sacred place. Early Christians built their churches in such places in an attempt to displace older religions. By utilising ancient religious sites, Christian priests thought to encourage pagan worshippers to abandon the old gods and adopt the new teachings.

There are many such sites in Wales and Llanwenog is possibly one of the oldest for, although most of the extant building dates back to the 13th century, the foundation of the earliest church dates to the 6th. I circumnavigate the graveyard and it is still just possible to detect that the original enclosure or ‘Llan’ was circular, or oval, in shape although it has now been extended and squared off at one end.

We know almost nothing about St Gwenog. She is mentioned in the Laws of Howell Dda copied in the 15th century and in the 18th century an annual local fair, held in January, was known as Ffair Gwenog’s. Links have also been made with St Gwennlian who was active locally but it is a link that is difficult to establish. Even St Gwenog’s Well, once famous for its healing properties, has long since disappeared. Its previous existence points to the reason for the site being allocated as a ‘Llan’ in pagan times. Water was the earliest form of worship followed by that of the sun until Christianity incorporated elements of those religions into its own.

Inside the church I see thick whitewashed walls. At the altar is an early stone carving of Mary and St John at the foot of the cross. It is very badly weathered having originally been built into the gable end of the side chapel. Now, it is safe and sound in the new altar, the figures barely discernible. I turn away and spy an early wall painting of the Apostles and the Ten Commandments, the faces peer out at me through the fog of time while, above me, the beautiful ceiling rafters smile down. I am escorted to the door by richly carved pews and I climb a few worn stone steps while the tiny carved heads of the saints watch me as I pass beneath them.

Outside the battlemented tower draws my eye from the older, softer parts of the church. It is an imposing feature, providing protection for the village in times of strife. It was a later edition to the building, built in the 15th century by Sir Rhys ap Thomas (who’s heraldric shield I spy above one of the windows) to commemorate Henry VII’s victory over Richard III at Bosworth in 1485. Many men from Llanwenog parish fought and died for Henry in his quest for the throne but, once established, the Tudor dynasty did little to enhance the fortunes of their Welsh countrymen.

I sit for a while among the markers of the dead and think about what I have seen. I am touched by the peace and the great age of the place and love every inch of it. But for me, the best thing about the visit is the font. I slip back inside for another look.

It used to sit near the western doorway but has been moved to the south side of the lady chapel. Someone has filled it with a tacky flower arrangement totally out of keeping with the awesome antiquity of the piece. With a finger I trace the marks where the cover (now lost) once rested. The font dates from the Norman period and it is showing its age. The stone is carved with the heads of the twelve apostles. They are worn, not just by time but from centuries of visitors drawn to touch the primitive features as I am doing now. These carved faces have been described variously as ‘crude’, ‘grotesque’ and ‘rough’ but to me, they are beautiful. The tracks of the ancient chisel giving voice to the long dead craftsman. I wish I could spend longer here. I run my fingers over the surface and feel as if I am clasping the gnarled hand that worked it.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Under Canvas

We have been planning a camping weekend in the Brecon Beacons, not too far away and breathtaking in its beauty. However, the forecast is grim and my old fella not as enthusiastic as he could be. I wish the Met office would be more precise, it says 'light rain' for Friday and Saturday and the best day, Sunday, they promise will be 'cloudy.' Now, ordinarily a little light rain is no problem but for a long time married couple a little past the flush of youth, a miserable wet weekend under canvas could be dreadful. He will moan, well they always do dont they, even in fine weather and the cheap, carefree hike through the hills I had invisaged could well turn out to be a sopping wet, cold nightmare. My dream camping partner has never been Victor Meldrew and a Victor Meldrew with wet feet will be even worse.
So, to pack or not to pack? that is the question.

There are several reasons for choosing the Beacons apart from the scenery. I want to visit some iron age sites, to stride across the hills and try to imagine them as they were a thousand years or more ago. Legend says that, after the slaughter of her family, Heledd founded a small church, now known as St Illytds some twenty miles away, outside the national park and I would like to visit it to get an idea of the landscape in which she ended her days.
There are so many neolithic sites in the Brecon area and I love to photograph the standing stones (most actually fallen now), and later paint them, capturing the rolling mist and the purple tipped mountains in the distance. I've never been to Llanthony Abbey either although I have always intended to. Life is beginning to roll by so quickly and we have no free weekends left in August and it will be another summer of not doing anything I really want to. So, dammit, I think we will go and if we end up spending most of the time drying off in the pub - so be it.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Song of Heledd

How long ago all that warm weather seems now. In Wales July was the wettest month since November and August hasnt exactly made a dry start. But there is an upside to it, it means no one expects the grass to be mown every week and if the flower beds look droopy and dismal, well, it isnt my fault, how can I be expected to garden in the rain, let the slugs have them I say. So, I stay at my desk and dash out splendid stories - well, hopefully splendid stories anyway. I am more than a quarter t hrough my next, the third novel.

It is entitled The Song of Heledd and is based on some fragments of Welsh 9th century poetry but set in the 7th. The Canu Heledd is narrated by a lone woman, a woman mourning for the loss of her kin and kingdom. She is the princess Heledd, sister to Cynddylan, King of Pengwern who togther with the king of Gwynedd and Penda of Mercia make war upon Oswald and his son Oswiu of Northumberland. An attack on Pengwern results in the entire dynasty being destroyed apart from Heledd, whose keening sorrow reaches us across the centuries in the form of a scrap of poetry.
The poems from the sequence make many references to Cynddylan's hall and her father, her many brothers and sisters are named and some details as to their lifestyle. The thing that sparked my interest is the misery in Heledd's voice and her great sense of guilt. She feels responsible for the massacre of Pengwern but we do no know what her sin is. So this is where I come in to fill in the gaps.
The Song of Heledd is a tragedy, a love story and a tale of war. Heledd takes the reader back into the dusky realms of Briatin's Celtic past to explain just what happened to overset her security and undermine her brother's power. Below is a teaser, hope you enjoy.

The Song of Heledd


I dreamed of the eagles long before they came. In my dream they swooped down from their cloudy crags, blackening the sky, the wind from their wings lifting my hair. They circled, talons extended, before settling on the field of death to tear at the corpses of my brothers.
The dagger of loss ripped open my heart as i waded through my slaughtered kin to find Cynddylan's body and when I saw his limp standard, his torso twisted, his neck broke, his mouth gaping, my world turned dark. I kneeled in his blood and tried to close the yawning wound upon his chest but he was gone. All my brothers were lost, the kingdom was shattered and only I was left, alone. I threw back my head, unprotected beneath a vast and empty sky.


When I woke in the morning, safe in my furs, I flung back the covers and ran outside. My playmates tumbled as usual beneath a kindly summer sky while their mothers spun cloth in the shade of the alder tree.
My brother, Cynddylan, King of Pengwern strode across the enclosure with an arm about his companion. I ran to tell him of my terrible dream but he waved me away, intent on the affairs of men.
As I grew to womanhood the dream faded and I forgot it. It was many years later when the clash of battle first sounded that I remembered what was to come.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Parents, Research and Reviews

The warm weather has kept me away from the computer until later on in the day and then it is such a rush to get everything done before bedtime that I have been overlooking several things. Right now I am s upposed to be packing to visit my mum and dad for the weekend buit thought I would just do this before the day gets going. My parents live over two hundred miles away, most of it down windy, hilly lanes that take an age to navigate but they are worth it and at 87 and 90 years old, they are parents to be proud of. They are both very supportive of my writing and proudly boast to all their friends about their daughter -the novelist. so they will be even more proud when they read the lovely review written by Lisa Yarde of The Historical Novels Review. http://historicalnovelreview.blogspot.com I am really touched by her kind words and will do my best to direct as much traffic to her site as possible in way of thanks. they are alsooffering a free copy of Peaceweaver to the person who leaves the best review, so far there is only one so get in while the going is good!

The Forest Dwellers is undergoing final edits and work is being done on teh cover. I posted some photographs taken for the cover on my facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/The-Forest-Dwellers-by-Judith-Arnopp/124828370880823?ref=ts the model is absolutely stunning :D (for those who don't know, it is my eighteen year old daughter, Laura, possibly the most gorgeous woman ever to grace this earth.) Also coming soon is a collection of work by my writing group. WE have worked hard on it for almost a year now and it contains a nice eclectic mix of genres and opinions. It is called Of Cakes and Words and will be published by Cledlyn Publications, available by the end of the summer 2010.

While The Forest Dwellers is out of my hands i have begun research for my next novel, The Song of Heledd which is based on an 9th Centruy Welsh poem and set in teh 7th Century. The poems are fragments of an old tale of the Dogfeilng, a slaughtered dynasty from the Welsh borders. The only survivor is Heledd, the daughter of King Cyndrwn and sister of Cynddylan the Fair. I have been enthralled in the history for several months now and as I sink deeper into the Heledd's lost world the story in my head grows stronger and clearer. I can barely wait to get it on paper.

have a great weekend everybody

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Kidwelly Castle

On Sunday I went to Kidwelly Castle. I have been before but not for a number of years. It was just as good as I remembered.

The castle forms part of a defence system with Laugharne and Llansteffan. The first structure was begun in 1106, a wooden pallisade on an earthen mound. The stone curtain wall and replaced the wooden defenses in the early 13th century and by the end of the century the Chaworth family had built the massive towers and the inner ward complete with hall range, kitchen and chapel tower. The chapel protrudes beyond the curtain wall toward the river and the sacristry still sports a fine cruciform roof.
By the mid 1300's it had fallen under the control of the duchy of Lancaster and John of Gaunt rebuilt the great south gate. In 1403 Owain Glyndwr attacked but although the town fell the castle was not taken.

The massive gatehouse, completed around1422 was fully independent of the rest of the stronghold and easily defended. When I was there small children were eagerly peering through the murder holes and imagining raining missiles on the enemy below. It is a bloodthirsty child's paradise.

The castle is remarkably intact and there are narrow twisting corridors and towers to explore. The original grandeur of the building is still easily discernible, and many fine mouldings and fireplaces remain. In several rooms the wall plaster is still clearly seen and the whole castle reeks of history; the people who once lived and worked there still echo in the dark corners.
We spent alot of time looking at the evidence of alterations to the building and realise that for much of the castles active life it would have resembled a building site. Different types of stone at the top of walls that have been heightened adn doorways and windows blocked up.

The views from the towers stretch to the sea and beyond and to the east lies Gwenllian's Field. Gwenllian was a Welsh Warrior Princess from the 12th century princess of Gwynedd who lost her battle against the Normans at Kidwelly and was executed on the field after the defeat of her army. If you would like to read more about Gwenllian then I recommend Memories of the Curlew by Helen Spring isbn: 9781849234900. I also recommend that you pay a visit.
Kidwelly lies just south of Carmarthen.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Literary Snobs

I have just spent a day comforting a friend of mine who received a scathing review of her very tidy novel. I can only put the reviewers comments down to prejudice. One of the most disappointing aspects I have discovered about the book world is the snobbery. Writers sneer at authors of other genres and even those within their own. I used to believe that, as writing requires some degree of intelligence, I would find the literary world inhabited by the open minded and that encouragement would be strong but I was quite wrong.

I have friends from all genres, I know they work just as hard as I at presenting their work in the best possible way and I respect that. It isn't a doddle to write a romance, it isn't a cop out to write a fantasy; it takes just as many hours of self denial, solitary confinement and every bit as much hair ripping and despair.

If the writing is in a style not favoured by a particular reviewer, it does not make the book 'crap.' If the writing flows, is pleasant to read and the story can hold the attention and please enough readers then the book is worth publishing, whether it be via the mainstream or the self publishing route. One opinion is just that, one unimportant opinion.

Of course new writers will make errors, all writing is a learning curve no matter what giddy heights the author has achieved. It does not help emerging talent to have reviewers (who are often misinformed) make slating comments. A harsh review can make or break a debut novelist. I am not suggesting that we should be 100% congratulatory but whereas constructive criticism is always positve, slating can only do harm.

It is only a dream to hope that all writers will one day unite to support and encourage their fellows and perhaps forgive mistakes that they may someday make themselves. We all make errors, William Shakespeare's historical plays are peppered with inaccuracies and prejudices but nobody ever suggested he should give up. It is fiction we are writing after all. There are no 'truths' in history, only opinions.

I advise all writers that if you love to write, have to write then do it for yourself and ignore the critics who are often frustrated authors themselves. Believe that your book is good; your words will be enjoyed by somebody somewhere so stop feeling sorry for yourself, show those negative critics a thing or two and GO FOR IT!

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Back and raring to go!

It is a few weeks since I have blogged but don't for one moment think I have been enjoying myself! After recovering from the bad back at Easter I believe I dived too readily into catching up with all that was left undone by my injury and, subsequently run down, succomed to a nasty cold which rapidly detriorated into bronchitis. So, a week in bed and another recovering. Not fun at all. Feeling much better, although still coughing like a hound, I have now resumed the editing and work on the book cover of The Forest Dwellers.

My big news this week is that we welcomed a new member into the family on Friday when we received our first foster placement. She has settled down quickly and is rapidly becoming 'one of us.' I am finding all these new responsibilites are a bit tiring, especially with being so recently ill but I am enjoying it and that is the main thing.

John has read The Forest Dwellers through for the first time and has nothing but enthusiastic praise for it (I know, I know, he is biased). His reaction is very encouraging for I know he is always honest with me and he is very good at spotting errors; he picked up some typo's and small hiccups in continuity that I can now correct before it goes to an editor.

And the sun is here, at last; I can get up in the morning without shrugging into jumpers and socks. The Rayburn can stay off and salad is on the menu more frequently. The birds are making a racket in the mornings and the sun is blinding me through the windows and I will soon be complaining of being too hot. Isnt the sunshine just lovely?

We are lucky enough to have owls nesting in our garden and the young are so funny. They don't stay in the nest but clamber about in the branches, a bit like parrots do, I even found one on the lawn on a couple of occasions and had to replace him in the tree for fear of predators. I have boought a new camera and hope to get out there and take some photographs when it arrives. Fingers crossed they dont fledge before then.

It is all happening here, we have four birthdays in the next three weeks so it will be barbeques and chocolate cake all the way. And, most astonishingly, I realised that in February my mum and dad will have been married for SEVENTY YEARS! Good Lord, is that humanly possible?