Sunday, 26 October 2014

Revisiting Battle Abbey 1066/ 2014

Early this month I revisited Battle Abbey for the first re enactment of the Battle of Hastings in several years. It was a superb event and it made me wonder why I am so fascinated by battles and why I am writing a trilogy about the noble women of the Norman Conquest and how they survived 1066. I studied both Medieval history and The English Civil War as a student and those eras are of particular interest to me. Another reason for my passion resides deep inside my personal past.  A direct ancestor who fought as a captain with the Scots Greys at The Battle of Blenheim was awarded a family crest by King George 1 and a parcel of land in Ireland as a reward for valour. In fact, I, absurdly used to use the family crest on notepaper when I applied for jobs (I was a student) thinking it made my applications look more impressive. I think I got the student jobs because I was suitable not because of my illustrious ancestor.

The Women of Hastings, The Saxon Camp, Re enactment 2014.

My father's family came from the Scottish Highlands. It was not until later in the eighteenth century that they took up residence in Ireland. They were military men until my great grandfather rebelled. He refused to join the army and decided to marry an unsuitable bride. William Baxter was banished from the family home. However, the land eventually came his way.  He ended up as a gentleman farmer who was also a carpenter. My mother's family were 'planted' in Ireland as a result of another war. Her ancestor fought as a mercenary in the Williamite wars of the late seventeenth century. He got his reward after the Battle of the Boyne which was the largest battle ever fought in the United Kingdom and ended up carving a successful future for himself in Northern Ireland. The shameful part of the story is that, just as after The Battle of Hastings, the victors literally seize territory from those who lived there before them. They destroy the lives of others. They bring about regime change and help to establish it. With this comes both positive and negative results but sadly human cost, the loss of life in battle and dispossessed. It is not a history to be proud of but it does explain my fascination with the past and, in particular, the effect of battles such as The Battle of Hastings on women.

Blessing the Battle

The event which took place on Senlac Hill almost a thousand years ago brought great change to England. The poor may not have noticed it greatly in that they exchanged one group of warlords for another. A feudal system was already in place in England by 1066. But for the noble wives of those who fought at Hastings the change was significant. They were survivors. Many wealthy women fled forced marriages with the enemy and took refuge in convents. Others looked after their families and estates until these were taken from them. Either they remarried or they took refuge where ever they could, and became exiles as did the heroine of the novel that I am writing currently. This is about Gytha, Harold's elder daughter who went into exile in Denmark and then married a prince of Kiev. Often the exiles lived in extreme poverty.

In the Saxon Camp

Attending a re enactment whether it is an eleventh century experience or a seventeenth century Civil War experience helps us appreciate what these battles were like, what people wore, what they ate and how people lived then. For a writer it is a perfect way to immerse oneself in the period you write about. For the reader, the student or the history lover it is a superb day out.

The Normans believed God was on their side

Norman Kite Shaped Shields

Saxon Round Shields

Musical Instruments

I wonder if anyone who reads this blog has any interesting family history. I have a signed copy of The Swan-Daughter, a novel about King Harold's younger daughter, which will be on general release on 11th December, as a prize for the most interesting comment. I would love to hear, too, if anyone is descended from Harold and Edith Swan-Neck.
The Raven

I shall choose the winner from the hat and announce the result here on this blog on 1st December ten days before the paperback release of The Swan-Daughter.

The winner can then send me his/her address for the signed book through my website email.

This competition is open internationally. I look forward to reading small snippets of your family history either via my web site email or here in the comments section.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

St Nicholas, a Greek Byzantine Church at Chora

Many of the Byzantine churches in the Greek Mani were  built during the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries. Over the past two years I have visited so many of these in villages in the Taygetos Mountains that I cannot even remember all their names. However, the icons and frescoes they contain are fascinating and tell familiar stories. It interests me to think that people who lived during these centuries gazed on these with awe and through them learned the stories of the Old and New Testaments.

Bruce Chatwin, the writer who fell in love with the Mani and also who converted to the Greek Orthodox religion before he died of aids in 1989, must have felt likewise. I write about Bruce Chatwin here

If the video does not show here is the link:

Recently, my husband made a short video about the church in the Greek Mani where Bruce Chatwin  requested his ashes to be placed after his death. The Church of St Nicholas at Chora has a special sense of place, a perfect location for a Greek Othodox Church. It was built in the tenth century. Unfortunately, as it was locked on the day we made the video, we could not see the frescoes. Yet, walking around it on a sunny evening, just before sunset, is enough to convince me that a sense of timelessness exists here amongst olive trees and above the Viros Gorge. I cannot think of a better place for one's last journey.

The photographs above were taken last week at St Nicholas at Chora. Whilst it was impossible to view frescoes inside St Nicholas, another local church which is easily found as you walk from Chora to the main road, is usually open. The frescoes in this Orthodox Church date from a later century.

The best frescoes I have seen in village chuches in the Taygetis Mountains are to be discovered in the medieval churches of the village of Kastania. This beautiful hill village can be found by carrying on past Chora around the mountain route via Sidonia.

Fresco from one of the many medieval churches in Kastania

Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife and the recently published historical novel The Swan-Daughter , published by Accent Press in July 2014, initially on amazon kindle but on general distribution on December 11th 2014. This is a novel about the aftermath of 1066 from the point of view of Gunnhild Godwinsdatter, King Harold's younger daughter. It is based on a documented historical story.

Monday, 15 September 2014

The Swan's Song in Medieval Literature

Swans feature as an image in both The Handfasted Wife and in The Swan-Daughter, novels set at the time of The Norman Conquest of the eleventh century. Edith Swan-Neck, the protagonist of The Handfasted Wife allegedly possessed an elegant swan-like neck and white skin. This was considered a sign of great beauty during this period. Her daughter Gunnhild, the heroine of The Swan-Daughter which is connected to The Handfasted Wife (though a stand alone novel) resembles her mother. She is often referred to as Swan-Neck's daughter. Gunnhild was the youngest daughter of Harold II, who was defeated at Senlac Hill by Norman Duke William.

Her fictionalized story is an Anglo-Norman elopement, a love triangle: one that is documented in letters between Gunnhild and Archbishop Anselm, circa 1090, and in The Ecclesiastical History of Oderic Vitalis, 12thC.

Swan from a Medieval Bestiary

During the medieval period, swans had special significance. Illustrations of swans grace the pages of bestiaries: collections of medieval creatures with primary text explanations of their significance. The swan's Latin name is Olor. The swan has a harmonious voice and sweet song. These bestiaries tell us that swans sing most sweetly before they die. The swan is attracted by the zither or the harp and will sing along when one is played. A swan's long neck makes the song more pleasant because its voice is struggling to get out through the long winding way. This causes it to emit various notes. Isidore of Seville also tells us that the swan is a good omen especially for sailors as she only touches the sea, then rises to seek air and land.

There are many romantic associations with swans:

Bartholomaeus Anglicus, 13th C, writes:

'When a swan is in love he seeketh the female and pleaseth her with beclipping of the neck, and drawing her to himward; and he joineth the neck to the female's neck, as if it were binding their necks together.'

Two Swans

One of the beautiful pieces of music from the Middle Ages is the Swan-Sequence. This is an anonymous Carolingian-Aquitanian Latin sequence, first recorded around 850. Its melody was popular for centuries. Sometimes it is called The Swan's Lament which I find poignant and which explains how it was used in the Church year. It was, for instance, used for Sunday services in Limoges and Winchester during the 10th C. During the 11th C it was a common melody for liturgical texts for the Feast of the Holy Innocents. By the 12thC it was a common setting for Whitsun sequences in Southern France. The Swan-Sequence shares characteristics with the lai. In this it differs from the Gregorian Chant.
Swan image from a poem by Guillaume Cretin 16thC

The Swan-Sequence may have been viewed as an allegory for 'The Fall of Man'. Avian imagery was used for the wandering searching mind or soul and is evident in the Old English poems The Wanderer and The Seafarer. Its last manuscript appearance is in a Norman manuscript dating from circa 1100.

In The Swan-Sequence the swan has left the lush land and is trapped on the ocean amongst terrible waves, unable to fly away. She longs for fish but cannot catch them. She looks up towards Orion and prays for light to replace darkness. When dawn finally comes, she rises to the stars and flies to land. All the birds rejoice and sing a doxology, a short hymn of praise to God.
The Lady and the Swans, medieval image.

The swan image is therefore truly appropriate for my new historical novel, The Swan-Daughter. In war and conquest we see man's fall at it most vicious. After the Norman Conquest there was eventually, an amalgamation of English language, laws and culture with Norman culture and laws. The noble women in my novels, the shadows in the corner, remind me of the swan's prayer for light to replace darkness. They had longings and aspirations and most of all they desired a place of safety, a secure land.


The Swan-Daughter, published by Accent Press, 2014.

The Handfasted Wife, published by Accent Press, 2013, in paperback and for all e readers

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Legends and History- Tristram and Iseult and Robin Hood

The Swan-Daughter, the second novel in The Daughters of Hastings series was published in July as an e book by Accent Press and it will be published on 11th December as a paperback. The Swan-Daughter is the story of King Harold's youngest daughter, Gunnhild. I write about her here.

Her story is very romantic and like her mother, Edith Swan-Neck's story, parts of it have been the subject of legend. There was even the possibility that she was a model for some of the Breton versions of the Guinevere story. Guinevere did not enter the Arthurian legends until much later on.She was not in the version of the story as given by the early 12th century historian, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Monmouth's stories of King Arthur, the knights and the quest for the Holy Gail were designed to mask the more ghastly events of the first crusade. He was an early 'spin' historian!

Arthur and Guinevere

I researched where I could in Chronicles resourced on the shelves of the Bodleian Library Oxford in order to find concrete information about Gunnhild. I discovered that she really did elope from Wilton Abbey with Count Alan of Richmond (Alain of Brittany) and that she was later involved with his brother, Alan the Black whom I call Niall in the novel. This history is documented by Oderic Vitalis in the early 12th century. Other evidence for the elopement and her relationship with Alan's brother is a correspondence between Gunnhild and Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury. This is an archived correspondence in which the Archbishop tells Gunnhild not to live with Count Alan's brother but instead to return to the abbey of Wilton. These sources are the bones, the skeleton of my story The Swan-Daughter. Into this I integrate politics that followed the Conquest of 1066, for instance- The Earls' Rebellion of 1075, Domesday Book 1085 and King William's troubles with his son, Robert which occurred in the late 1070s and again during the 1080s.

Oderic Vitalis wrote about the 11th C, especially The Conquest

I decided to parallel the story of Gunnhild, Niall and Alan in The Swan-Daughter with that of Tristram and Iseult. In the story of Tristram and Iseult, Tristram who later becomes one of King Arthur's knights, kills a dragon and seeks a wife for his uncle Mark of Cornwall. Iseult's maid, either by accident or design depending on the version you read, gives the couple a potion intended for Iseult and King Mark. It would cause them to fall in love at first sight. This leads to a famous literary love triangle and an impossible situation. It leads to many circuitous adventures in true romance tradition.

Tristram and Iseult

Medieval romance was emergent in stories and in song by the end of the eleventh century. These early medieval romance stories were written down in the vernacular Norman French. Romances were long narratives of adventure that combined the real and the improbable. They appeared in Britain a few years after they originated in France, written down in Norman French for the descendents of those barons who had landed with William the Conqueror. Other romance tales were recorded in Occitane, a language of the French south. Troubadours carried this vernacular romance literature from Spain to the court at Aquitaine where they became popular during the first half of the twelfth century.

Medieval romance quickly becomes associated with the notion of chivalry, the rules of knighthood and the idea of setting up 'the lady' as an image of virtue and of love, actually dichotomy since woman was also seen as the temptress, the daughter of Eve. A knightly quality was to fall in love, usually with another's wife and certainly not his own wife. This was unsurprising really in a society where marriages amongst the nobility were arranged and their objective involved the transfer of land. As for 'the lady' who was the subject of such love, she could behave as unobtainable and disdainful as she wished. This love was not sexual but ideal and pure, at least for the most part. The veneration of the lady was tied up with the popular cult of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ, the ideal woman who had a virgin birth. Chapels were dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Flowers were named after her. Pilgrimages were made to shrines dedicated to her. She is always depicted as wearing blue the colour of purity. Gunnhild is no Virgin Mary. Throughout The Swan-Daughter she is haunted by guilt for her love of Count Alan's brother. She becomes Iseult to his Tristram.

One of my favourite versions from TV

An interesting subject of legend who has recently had a resurgence in historical novel form is Robin Hood. My first introduction to Robin Hood was Richard Green blowing his horn through Sherwood Forest's greenwood and calling his band of merrie men to stirring adventures in the 1960s television series Robin Hood. There are six major sources for the legends of Robin Hood, A Geste of Robyn Hood, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar, Robin and the Monk, Robin Hood and the Potter and The Death of Robin Hood. All of these works were written after the period that is usually ascribed to Robin of Sherwood. His time period appears to run from the last years of the reign of King Henry II around 1185 through the reigns of King Richard I, King John and ends during the reign of Henry III after 1235. In popular legend his death is circa 1247. Some sources do suggest a wider time frame. Local legends spring up about Robin Hood and the majority of these date from 200 years after the core legends were recorded. Unlike Gunnhild's story where there are snippets of her story recorded in chronicles it is difficult to establish the historicity of Robin Hood. It is likely that he was a real man who existed in history and not just in folklore. He is however essentially a legendary character. The following three fabulous writers have taken Robin Hood and turned him into their own successful stories.

Steven McKay's version

Steven A. McKay  The Wolf and the Raven is the second in a series about the outlaw.  These Robin Hood stories are, interestingly, set during the fourteenth century when the legends were first recorded. The books are great fun. I absolutely love them. If, like me, you are a 'Robin' fan read them.

Angus Donald The Rise of Robin Hood  This is the first of a series of which Angus has written four. They are superbly written. I recommend these novels highly for the adventure and the quality of Donald's writing style.
Gritty and Beautiful

Adam Thorpe Hodd  Who was Robin Hood? In the form of a medieval document Thorpe gives us the story of a free spirit and a not very pleasant outlaw. It is literary, superb and well worth reading.
Go to "Hodd" page
A beautiful and clever novel.

Jenny Kane Romancing Robin Hood This one has a heroine who like myself is fascinated by Robin Hood ever since she saw the stories on TV as a girl. She is a successful academic who is supposed to be writing a text book about medieval criminals. She keeps getting drawn into the world she is writing. There is a present day story with a linked love story to engage the reader also. I cannot wait to read this as it promises great fun. It will be released on 5th September but is available on amazon pre order. I love the cover too. Find Jenny Kane here:

Romancing Robin Hood
On my reading list

Finally, I wonder which legends and myths interest you as readers and perhaps writers most of all. Do comment. I have a complementary i tunes download available if you comment here or via my website :

 Do not forget to leave a contact email.


Friday, 30 May 2014

Medieval Women, flowers, sex, motherhood

Medieval woman was constantly reminded of God's will and his divine justice. In fact everyone was, men, women and children. The notion of heaven and hell was very real, so real that, throughout the Middle Ages, churches contained wall paintings reminding the people, rich and poor, of Heaven's blessings and Hell's terrors. Women during this period were classified according to their sexual status. They were virgins, wives or widows and they were, of course, also mothers.

Church Wall Paintings informed men and women of sin

Sexual intercourse was part of God's original plan. If Adam and Eve had not eaten the apple- a sin of pride- they would have had intercourse. Otherwise how would they have obeyed God's order to increase and multiply (Genesis 1: 27-8) ? By this rationale, if women chose to be virgins in paradise they would have been thwarting God's intentions. It was, therefore, after the 'fall' that the concept of lust crept in and, thereafter,became the problem for the medieval Church; not sex. If lust was not controlled it could lead to eternal damnation. The only legitimate outlet for sex was marriage. 'Marriage was ordained by God. Monasticism,' writes historian Henrietta Leyser, 'was instituted by man.'

This gave rise to the idea of mutual conjugal debt. St Paul wrote, 'Let the husband render to his wife what is her due, and likewise the wife to her husband.' It does not take much imagination for us as we glance backwards from the perspective of a more liberated 21st century to see the problems this presented for women.
The Medieval Woman

Two main medical theories about sexual differences existed during the medieval period. Galen said that female anatomy corresponded to that of a man. This theory also suggested that women must ejaculate her seed for there to be conception but could not conceive without enjoying intercourse. It seems on a first reading, egalitarian. Yet, what does this theory suggest for the medieval woman who conceives a child after a rape? However, just as unfair, Aristotle saw women as defective males with the male anatomy turned inside out. Women were perceived as the 'weaker vessel.'

The Weaker Vessel

Male seed was precious. It could not be wasted. Female seed was dangerous so women must purge themselves of bodily excesses. Menstruation was a part of this. Intercourse was also part of the purging process. Obviously not when a woman had her menses.

It was thought that women's seed and menstrual blood were dangerous to everyone and everything. It could turn wine sour, destroy crops. It could kill off bees and dogs tasting it could get rabbies. Even gazing at a menstruating woman might have dire consequences. Another theory comes into play here.

Health during the medieval period was all about balancing humors. This theory had been taught by Hippocrates and was inherited from Ancient Greece. The medieval believed that there were in existence four humors that must be in a state of balance. These were four elements: fire, air, earth and water. Three categories corresponded to these: heat, cold, dryness and moisture. Then the bodily humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm; third the temperaments: sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholic. Men and women were different. Men were hotter than women. They had physiological and moral superiority. Women had a lack of heat which made for physical weakness and untrustworthy nature. Women were more sexually greedy than men because their cold uteruses were in need of having hot semen to warm the uterus.
Wikipedia, The Four Humors

In the Trotula, a Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine written in Salerno in the 12th C we find that this defect was considered a sign of a less perfect life form. 'Women were unable to concoct ( cook) their ingredients as thoroughly as men.' ( Introduction). Men were able to exude residues through sweat and the growth of facial hair. Women, however, would accumulate excess materials from their bodies and this could lead to disease, an humoral imbalance. This imbalance was menstruation.

Menses became called a woman's flowers because trees without their flowers will not bear fruit. Women without their flowers will be deprived of offspring. Menstrual blood works like a tree. Before bearing fruit a tree must bear its first flowers. Nature had in effect established a purgation to temper woman's poverty of heat. Thus the 'flowers'. It was a vernacular term for menstruation used by rich and poor.

Childbirth was risky. It was believed that saints dispensed their favours equally between men and women. Mothers in the course of difficult labours would offer prayers to the Virgin and to Saints. St Margaret, a saint who was swallowed and spat out by a dragon, had unrivalled powers of empathy with the process of labour. During their ordeal women, surrounded by midwives, might seek comfort by listening to readings from her life.

Childbirth came to rich and poor, the village and the castle alike.

Girdles, known as birth girdles, were popular aids to birthing. As early as the 11th C Bald's Leechbook suggests that in a case of difficult labour a woman would put prayers upon her girdle to help ease the birth. At Westminster Abbey the monks guarded the Virgin's own girdle which had been given to them by Edward the Confessor. It was loaned out for aristocratic and royal births.

Image of St Margaret

So, Heaven, Hell, Saints, God's Will, were all notions that permeated the medieval mind. These were ideas that also existed in a misogynist society. As regards sex and motherhood, women were the 'weaker vessel.'

To read more I suggest:

Medieval Women, Henrietta Leyser, 1995, Phoenix Press.
The Trotula, edited and translated by Monica H.Green, 2002, University of Pennsylvania Press.

There is much on this subject in my new novel The Swan-Daughter to be published by Accent Press on 18th September 2014 as an e book and in December 2014 as a paperback.   

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Sarah Bower on The Art of Writing

A big thank you to Carol McGrath for inviting me to join this blog hop and for hosting my post. So, relay baton in hand, here I go…

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m lucky enough to be writer in residence in the English Department of Lingnan University in Hong Kong until June. While I do have a teaching commitment, the university has been incredibly generous in giving me a lot of time to write. 
I’m currently working on a novel entitled Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? (and thank you to the totally cool Magnetic Fields for the title) which has three story lines covering life in England and Palestine from 1948 to 2008. Its principals are an Englishwoman with a mysterious past which is revealed to her when she inherits a house on the North Yorkshire coast, and a Palestinian terrorist. The woman’s mother and an artisan baker also play key roles. The chronology is complicated and none of the relationships works out quite the way you think it will. I am trying, with this book, to walk the tightrope of reproducing a sense of the randomness of life’s connections and coincidences while still constructing a coherent narrative.
There are many challenges for me in writing this book. Perhaps, to date, I’ve had the most fun overcoming my ignorance about commercial bread-baking, when the Pump Street Bakery in Orford kindly allowed me to work a shift alongside their bakers. (And fresh-baked doughnuts for breakfast at 4am after a long night kneading dough is possibly the closest to heaven I shall ever get!) My next challenge will be a visit to Palestine in October when I shall be working on the olive harvest as part of the Zaytoun Project Of course, the history of modern Palestine is so well documented one hardly knows where to begin - and in the news again as we speak, with the Hamas-Fatah agreement - but a chance to visit the country, to stay with local villagers and share their lives, if only for a couple of weeks, will be invaluable to me as a writer in helping me to grasp what is pretty much ineffable about the atmosphere of a place - its smells and tastes, sounds and colours.
As part of my role at Lingnan, I’m also working on a contemporary adaptation of Beauty and the Beast for a class of eight to eleven year olds to perform and a paper on fashion in vampire novels for a forthcoming conference on fiction and fashion, and I’m preparing a review of Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel for the e-zine Asian Cha.
My third novel, Erosion, was published on April 28th.
My short story, Restoration, will be published in Unthology 5 in June.

Sarah wrote Erosion under a pseudo-name

How does your work differ from others of its genre? 

Well, I don’t write in any single genre. My two historical novels, The Needle in the Blood and The Book of Love (published in the US as Sins of the House of Borgia), have been variously described as literary fiction and historical romance! My latest book, Erosion is a contemporary literary thriller. I’ve described Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? in answer to the previous question, so I’ll leave it to readers of this blog to define it for themselves.
To be honest, and I think most writers would agree with me here, genre seems to me to be a marketing concept rather than any useful way of defining or describing a work of fiction. When, for example, my US publisher wanted to re-title The Book of Love, I was
uncomfortable because Sins of the House of Borgia gives, to my mind, a misleading impression of what that book is actually about, but they were insistent because they believed it would make the book more marketable. Well, they were right, so I bow to their superior selling skills and take the royalties cheques.

Why do I write what I do?

Simple. My head would explode if I didn’t. I don’t choose what I write, it chooses me.
How does my writing process work?
If I knew that, it might take me less than three years to write a novel!
I am an intuitive writer. The only novel for which I have made a detailed plan was Erosion because it is, on one level, a crime novel and therefore involves elements of puzzle solving, for which you must first construct your puzzle. I undertook the novel as something of an academic exercise, to see if I could do it. It will be for readers to judge if I succeeded, of course! I never usually know where a novel will end, I just have to follow my nose until I get there.
It’s much the same for my short fiction. Some ideas come to me as short stories, some as novels, and I have no real idea why this happens except, I suppose, that the short story form is more fitted to examining a moment, a mood, a single, intense crisis or realisation in a life, and the novel is more a series of actions and consequences.

As for the actual, physical process, let me give you a little glimpse of how I’m writing now. I’m sitting at my table in my apartment on Hong Kong’s Gold Coast. It’s a relatively cool day today, so I have the balcony door open rather than the air conditioner blaring. Birds are singing - black and white robins, spotted doves and something that sounds like a football referee blowing his whistle which I haven’t yet been able to identify. Mimosa is just coming into flower, as is hibiscus and bauhinia. The sea is a still, metallic blue and the mountains on the other side of the bay have that misty, Bali Hai look I shall forever associate with the South China Sea (while not reminding myself it probably derives from the factories in Shenzen rather than any mysteries of the Oriental climate). At this precise moment, I’m probably one of the luckiest writers on the planet…so let’s leave it there, shall we?

As the next writer to be featured in the blog hop, I’d like to introduce Karen Ma, author of Excess Baggage, a wonderful ‘true novel’ about the consequences for one family of living through the Maoist era in China.

Karen Ma is a Chinese-American author and journalist based in Beijing.  Originally born in China, Ma spent her formative years in Hong Kong and Japan, before earning an M.A. degree in Chinese language and literature from the University of Washington.  During her 20 plus years living in Japan and China, Ma worked as a journalist for the Daily Yomiuri, Kyodo News and NHK Radio Japan.  She also wrote for many international publications,
New York Newsday, International Herald Tribune, More Magazine, the Japan Times, South China Morning Post and the New Delhi-based Mint.
Ma’s most recent book is Excess Baggage, a semi-autobiographical novel based loosely on her family’s experience as Chinese immigrants living in Tokyo during the post bubble years of 1990s, published by San Francisco-based China Books in 2013.

Ma is the author of the non-fiction book, Modern Madam Butterfly: Fantasy and Reality of Japanese Cross-cultural Relationships, published in 1996 by Charles E. Tuttle.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Swan-Daughter and the Art of Writing

Justin Hill has invited me to take part in a WIP (work in progress) Blog Tour. Justin is an award winning travel writer and early medieval expert. His book Shield Wall, set in the years  before 1066, is a must read if you like this era. Shield Wall was highly praised by The Times and was included in a Sunday Times best of 2012 selection. You can find Justin's writing process story here:

What are you Working On?

I am frequently asked this question. Well, the answer is several projects. The most important of these is the final copy edit for The Swan-Daughter. That is in the hands of my editor now, but I shall be checking the proofs this May.

The Swan-Daughter is the second novel in the Daughters of Hastings trilogy which unusually presents the year 1066 and its aftermath from the point of view of the noble Godwin women. The Handfasted Wife was shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year- Historical Fiction, and has been consistently high on amazon UK and USA ratings since publication last year.

A story it like a coffer filled with treasures

The Handfasted Wife tells Edith Swan-Neck's story. She was Harold's common-law wife.  Although her marriage to him was legal he sat her aside in 1066 for a political alliance. She  was mother to  six of Harold's surviving children who all have interesting stories. I continue with The Swan-Daughter. Although connected to The Handfasted Wife and, even though, familiar characters do reappear in it, The Swan-Daughter is a stand alone novel. The novel tells the story of Gunnhild, the younger daughter. It tells of an extraordinary true romance which begins in 1075 after Queen Edith, the dowager queen and wife to Edward the Confessor, dies and Gunnhild elopes from Wilton Abbey with Count Alan of Richmond. Not only did Gunnhild elope with Count Alan, but, interestingly, she became involved with his brother. The Swan-Daughter presents a tapestry of women's lives during the post Conquest decades, a nod to emergent Anglo-Norman romance literature, and the effects of Domesday on the North during its conception in1086. The Swan-Daughter will be published this summer just as The Handfasted Wife is placed on wide distribution in UK and US bookshops. I am now working on the first draft of The Betrothed Sister, the story of King Harold's daughter Gita's (Thea in the book) exile in Denmark following The Siege of Exeter in 1068, her betrothal and her marriage to Vladimir, Prince of Kiev.

Part of The Swan-Daughter takes place in Normandy and Brittany

  Whilst it is unusual to write about 1066 and its aftermath from the point of view of the noble women, it is equally unusual to write about them in the wider context of Europe especially contemporary Denmark, Russia and Brittany. Sweyn Estridson, King of Denmark was the last Danish viking king and the first Danish medieval ruler. I have enjoyed researching them all but particularly The Betrothed Sister since Russian Studies was my first degree along with Medieval History. For me, writing historical fiction is primarily about story writing. Even though the story comes out of my research creating an exciting narrative is the most important element of my writing process. I diligently research and I stick to facts where I find these but this is the world of fiction, so I am compelled to 'invent' to bring characters to life with a good story as well as a replicated historical world.

The Angst and Joys of Writing a Novel

Here is my usual method for novel writing. I plan an outline before I begin a novel. The novels are character driven so I first write sketches of my main characters using a mix of what I can discover in annals and chronicles and my own imagination. As Hilary Mantel says a story is a series of scenes held together by a plot. Characters do tend to take on their own life in scenes and I have rein their behavior in. However, I might change things to suit these personalities as I write. Even if a plan is flexible and even organic it is all important for me to know where the story ends before I write it.

My research library is extensive, yet I can often be found amongst the shelves of Oxford's Bodleian Library. Writing an historical novel set so far back in The Middle Ages during a period of great change involves a subtle balancing act of fact and fiction. I aim to recapture the 'atmosphere' of the 11thC in a particular place and time. This means excavation and a later burial as information is concealed within a character or scene. At the moment I am getting a picture of Danish and Rus palaces during 11thC. I tend to keep detailed, clearly labelled notebooks with information. Before I write the words Chapter One I set out three parts to my plan and divide it roughly into chapters. This approach is just a variation on three acts. There is much to learn from film scripting techniques.

 I sit at my computer most days and aim for 1k words but often write less and sometimes  resort to pen and paper. Each session I revisit my previous session and correct things, aiming to get as good a first draft as possible. I also stop to check the historical background such as eating habits, sleeping habits, clothing, towns, fortresses, palaces, countryside, transportation and so on. Mine is a deceptively simple process but it works.

The first draft is set aside for a while and then it is worked on further, many times before my editor sees it. Angst and joy as I complete a book. And, as ever, I am interested in how other writers work.

May I Introduce:

I would like to introduce three writers whose books I admire:

Sarah Bower

'Sarah Bower is a novelist and short story writer. Her first novel, THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD, was nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her second, SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA, has been translated into nine languages and was an international bestseller. Her third, EROSION, will be published later this year. Her short fiction has been read on Radio 4 and has appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies. Sarah is currently writer in residence at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.’ Actually Erosion is published today 28th April. Congratulations, Sarah.
Sarah will write about her working practice, guesting here on Monday 5th May. Do look then.

 Rebecca Hazell

Rebecca Hazell holds an honours BA from the University of California at Santa Cruz in Russian history. She has written educational filmstrips, designed award-winning needlepoint canvases, designed science craft kits for children, and published award-winning nonfiction books for children. She has just completed a historical trilogy set in the thirteenth century.
She lives with her husband on beautiful Vancouver Island near their two adult children. She is a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition.

Rebecca Hazell

Rebecca's first novel in The Grip of God is titled The Tiger and the Dove.

Rebecca will tell us about her writing and research for The Grip of God and especially her second novel now published Solomon's Bride on her blog on 5th May. Do look here. 

Geoffrey Gudgion

saxons bane mockup

Geoffrey Gudgion left school at 17 to join the Royal Navy, and was later sponsored by the RN to read Geography at Cambridge. His sense of place began there. A subsequent, business career proved incompatible with writing, and after one row with his boss he stepped off the corporate ladder. His debut novel, Saxon’s Bane, is a thriller with a supernatural twist and was released in 2013 to widespread critical acclaim. He is now finishing his second book. You will find Geoffrey's write up on Monday 5th May on his website.

I hope my readers have enjoyed this article about writing and that you will look next week for the writers I have introduced. They will discuss their writing practice on their blogs and Sarah Bower here: www.scribbling-inthemargins.blogspot.

Find out more about me on my website :