A great review of ‘Sisters of The Bruce’!

Here is a lovely 5 star review of Sisters of The Bruce by Lenora Rain-Lee Good – author Dream Time and Other Flights of Fantasy(Kennewick, WA) posted on amazon.com January 23 2014

‘Robert the Bruce as seen through the eyes of his sisters’  

I love good historical fiction, and I love this book! I tremendously enjoyed that most of the story was told through the correspondence of the sisters of Robert the Bruce. Although my grandfather was genealogist of the family, and now his namesake and a cousin have taken on the mantle, I know little of the history of Scotland. One would think with all I’ve been privy to growing up, that I would have absorbed at least some of it. I did not even know that I am a distant relation to Robert the Bruce until my cousin told me, and showed me. I sort of knew who he (Robert) was, but only sort of. My historical interests lie elsewhere.

However, this book intrigued me, and I bought it (Kindle edition), and was reading it as my bedtime read. Today, I succumbed, and spent the better part of the afternoon on the sofa, and finished it. All of it. I read the Glossary, the notes–I read everything!

Scotland of the early 1300s is probably not a place I’d choose to live, but those who were there (by choice or by birth) were a hardy lot. The Bruce men were, for the most part, warriors, though one was also a scholar. The women were feisty and strong. This is not a novel about the sisters, per se; it is a novel about Robert as seen through the eyes of his sisters. It is about difficult times and hard survival. It is about family and loyalty. It is a mighty fine read!

When the oldest, Isa was taken to Norway to marry King Eric, she and her next younger sister, Kirsty began a correspondence that tells much of the story. It tells of their hardships, and it tells of the beauty they find in their marriages and situations. It tells of war and the hardships endured by the women who are unwilling witnesses. Did the sisters actually correspond? I haven’t a clue; however, it was not only possible, but plausible.

When the English, with the help of duplicitous Scots, capture Kirsty and Mary, two of the sisters, and Marjorie, Robert’s young daughter, and Elizabeth, his wife, the letters obviously take a turn. Those not captured escape to Orkney, under protection of Norway.

How those women survived is beyond my ken! Obviously they had the choice to survive or to die, but they survived some of the most brutal hardships imaginable, much of which comes out in the letters. Survival in medieval Scotland and England was, at best, difficult. Imagine being placed in a cage and exposed to the elements year round. Even those not subjected to the elements did not have it easy.

The author took a difficult subject, did her homework, and put together a book I had a hard time putting down! She wove a believable story using people from history and fictional characters. This is a novel; it is not a scholarly work of history, though it is obvious Ms. Harvey has read several such tomes in order to write this story.

It’s Competition Time!

How would you like to win a copy of ‘Sisters of the Bruce’? Over the next few weeks I’ll be asking a series of questions. The names of those who answer the questions correctly will go into a hat and I’ll pick out the winner. So get your thinking caps on!Here’s an easy one to start with …

Question 1.What was Robert the Bruce’s mother’s name and title?

Links of Turnberry Scotland

Perennial Perils and Pitfalls of the Weather

Whilst the US and Canada flounder under enormous layers of snow and temperatures drop to record levels, parts of the UK are on flood watch. In the southeast of Australia, the country surges towards yet another scorcher. Despite all our technology, the weather controls our lives. Today, we hear a lot about weather events – an unusual choice of language! Natural disasters in the making are tracked and those lucky enough to have access to this information and the necessary resources to get to safety are able to save themselves. For those who don’t have such access, it must be very much like medieval times.

You would only have known of a storm when the clouds brewed themselves into a dark mess and the skies boomed and crackled overhead; a storm surge – when it washed away your home, and you and your children with it. Excesses of the weather were perceived as a dark force, a punishment from a vengeful God. Many cultures feared the serpents beneath the seas as well which sucked down ships and their crews. So often, ships set sail beneath sunny skies only to be lost somewhere on their journey. But the seas were the highways of the time. So much of our current political and cultural heritage would not have occurred if captains and sailors had not taken their courage in their hands and boarded ships in good faith that they might make it to  journey’s end.

Winter must have been a fearful time – a dark time, a time for consuming carefully-hoarded supplies.

What must it have been like in the Great Famine of 1315-17? For two hundred years, the weather had been quite balmy – peppered with storms, of course, but these were not enough to deny the growth of crops and the supply of grain. Temperatures began to drop: only by a degree it is said, but that was enough. Then the rains came. The first year was disastrous. Harvests failed but most villagers could fall back on reserved stores. It was the second and third years which caused death and disaster. With increasing cold and continuous rain, floods followed and crops failed. People ate grain contaminated with mould. Some were affected by the fungal poison, Ergot, which brought on irrational behavior and reduced the capacity of immune systems to fight off illness

With heavy cloud cover, salt could not be produced by evaporation in the salt pans within the estuaries. Without salt, meat could not be preserved. When the oxen and other animals died of starvation and disease, the fields could not be ploughed. Without animals, the fields could not be manured reducing the fertility of the soil and viability of future crops.

Wars don’t necessarily stop because of a few failed harvests or storms. Vital resources were diverted away for military purposes. Across northern England and Scotland, devastation was wrought by both sides on the people and land. In Ireland, the Scots sought to enlist the aid of the Irish in defeating the Anglo-Irish lords. Had there not been a famine, they might just have succeeded.  In Europe, the situation was even worse as industries failed and scarce food supplies were diverted by warring kingdoms.

More periods of famine occurred in the following decades until the Black Plague decimated the population. Much later in 1360, an English army was struck by a storm: men and horses were killed by huge hail stones. The warring parties accepted this as divine intervention and sought a peaceful resolution.

Now we have a greater understanding of the vagaries of the weather. It may not be divine judgement as such but certainly our actions as consumers have contributed to changes in weather patterns.

Thankfully, in this day and age, we are more likely to survive periods of intense weather.  I wish all those who are suffering in these current conditions, a safe return to normal life.

10 Amazing tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Here are some of my favourite tips for writing historical fiction. It is from an older but very popular post, reviewed in the light of my more recent publishing experience with ‘Sisters of The Bruce’. Happy writing in 2014!

Tip One

  • Know thy self

How you approach writing historical fiction might depend a lot on your personality. Have you ever thought about whether you are a ‘big’ or ‘small picture’ person?

A ‘big picture’ individual will often prefer broad sweeps of history and miss some of the finer but important aspects of a story. ‘Small picture’ individuals might swamp themselves with so many facts, like formulating a mosaic, that they cannot start let alone finish a novel of such breadth. Be selective in what detailed descriptions the story really needs for it to flourish. Find a good balance and pace yourself so that you can indeed finish your manuscript in a timely fashion.

My ‘big picture’ nature led me to struggle with containment.

Tip Two

  • ‘Less is more’ in historical fiction

In popular historical fiction, readers generally prefer historical content which doesn’t weigh down the narrative. If you want to sell books, remember this well.

Finding a happy medium here is the challenge. Personally, I prefer a novel with a strong historical foundation. It’s the history I want to learn about so some novels in this genre are often too light weight for me. What is clear to me is that historical fiction is a spectrum with varying levels of density bringing pleasure or pain to readers.

The size of the book seems to be a factor today as well. Some readers, and therefore publishers, prefer a shorter, less complex novel – a concise story which is carried along by exciting events and clever banter. And of course there is nothing wrong with this, but it may not suit your topic or personal style. My next book will definitely be shorter owing to some quite  practical concerns – editing and proof reading takes longer, and publishing and postage costs increase with size.

You will simply not be able to please everyone but a good rule of thumb is that every sentence and every aspect of the content should add value to the story. However, it is worth considering especially in this information age that concentration spans seem to be diminishing as a result. Elegant simplicity is the key.

The phrase, ’kill your darlings’, means exactly what it says! And a properly edited book will be a mere skeletal shadow of its draft form. Self-publishers may run into difficulty here but your novel will benefit from the often expensive skills of a professional editor. Sadly, your good-hearted friends and family will have neither the skills nor the ‘slash and burn’ mentality required for the job.

Tip Three

  •  Decide what type of historical fiction you are going to write at the beginning and identify your audience  

Historical fiction generally relates to stories set more than fifty years ago. There are also over 30 different time periods across 20 centuries and some may go even further back in time. Is it an adventure, a fantasy, an epic, a romance or mystery/crime thriller? Does it have a military or nautical flavour? Know your audience or niche beforehand and your novel will grow from a strong foundation.

I wrote my novel, ‘Sisters of The Bruce’, because of my complete and, dare I say it, obsessive fascination with the Bruce family and their extraordinary story. It was only afterwards I was surprised to see that there were a number of historical fiction stories already written about sisters. Had I known earlier, it certainly wouldn’t have changed my path, but it was an object lesson in doing more research beforehand on the market.

Look also at the broad historical context of your story and any contemporary elements. The Battle of Bannockburn, when Scotland vanquished a much larger and better equipped English army, is critical to my story and I look forward to visiting Scotland for the 700 year Anniversary of the battle which will take place in June of this year. My audience is anyone of Scottish heritage around the world as well as those who enjoy a good dollop of medieval history.

Tip Three

  •  Find a period in time with which you have a heart connection

Mine is medieval Scotland but this has grown to include much of northern Europe for many of these countries were linked economically as well as politically. Weaving a story across such a broad landscape requires close attention to detail across multiple settings and sound research skills. I often feel like a vigilant, bright-eyed creature nosing the midden heaps of the past for tasty morsels, some long-forgotten bit of information which will add a unique twist to my story.

By all means write about your roots. Nothing is more inspiring than walking in the footsteps of your ancestors

Tip Four

  • Learn to write well

Sounds obvious doesn’t it but, if you can, do a creative writing course or series of smaller courses and your story will flourish. Marry up your best creative efforts with fascinating characters who have their own story to tell. Use well-constructed sentences with robust nouns and powerful verbs, and limit unnecessary adverbs. Vary your sentence lengths. Avoid repetition. Read your work aloud as this sometimes identifies glitches you might otherwise have missed. Learn about the narrative arc – start and finish well.

My creative writing bible, which I cannot recommend highly enough, is ‘The Little Red Writing Book’ by Australian author, Mark Tredinnick.

Learn from other writers in your genre. Hilary Mantel’s works are outstanding for their breath-taking descriptions and exquisite eye for detail. Other authors like Sharon Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick and Edward Rutherfurd write extraordinary historical fiction, weaving authentic texture into a complex tale to bring it to life. It’s no easy task!

Tip Five

  •  Look for conflicted characters

Flawed individuals with an array of strengths and weaknesses make for great stories. Draw out those flaws and human traits for that is what your reader will identify with in the midst of an unfamiliar setting.

The plot of your story will revolve around your characters. You’ll find an array of roles to foster and the pivotal aspects of protagonist and antagonist require a strong supporting cast. If like me, you love to write multi-generational epics, then you will probably have an abundance of characters. Think about these characters throughout your first draft and remove any that don’t add value early in the piece before you become too attached to them.

 Tip Six

  •  Undertake strong research and develop an effective system for storing data

This is critical to your story for many historical fiction readers wish to be educated as well as entertained. Keep in mind that some of your readers will be keen students of history and may be looking for your story to bring what they know to life. I have put down many a historical fiction novel because the facts have got in the way of a good story. If you must take history into your own hands, make sure you fess up at the end, offering logical reasons why you chose an alternative path.

Try to complete your research before you start writing your novel. I once killed off a character then had to write her back into the story when further research showed she was very much alive and well and later gave birth to several children.

Another challenge for me is what to do with the research I’ve gathered: how to record and store it. I’m rubbish at it! Scribbled notes on napkins and loose paper are nigh on useless if you can’t locate that critical fact with ease. It’s a huge time waster!

 Tip Seven

  • Read the most accurate historical texts on your topic for an overview 

Get recommendations on texts from a variety of historians. Their views might differ and present intriguing perspectives. Previously unknown characters may come to light in your search. I like to pick over bibliographies to find new authors. Read social histories for this information will bring your subjects to life. Don’t forget children’s picture books as well: these can provide a visual layer of vital knowledge.

If you can, visit the countries that interest you. Nothing beats wandering around castle ruins at the end of the day. Look at the broad landscape which, most likely, will not have changed too much. That skyline of mountains will be what your characters saw as they looked out of the castle arrow slits. See how the sun shapes the landscape and where the shadows lie. Feel the wind on your face and the ghosts at your back.

 Tip Eight

  •  Immerse yourself in the culture through reading

Your 21st century eye will pick out differing values towards women, labourers, livestock, home and hearth, war and death. Reduce contamination from the present by thinking about what might/might not have been invented at the time.

Make no apology for the values of the past for this will surely date your book and bring the reader back into this century. Values evolve for a reason due to the economics and politics of the time. Accept this and move on.

Tip Nine

  •  Get inside the skin of your characters to understand their lives

Understand the roles and manners and language of the time. Steer clear of writing dialogue that is so authentic that it is incomprehensible to your reader. English, plainly spoken and easily read, is best. Sometimes the sense of a different time can be captured in how a sentence is structured. Look for more subtle ways in language and setting to bring out the difference. Including a glossary of terms might be a helpful strategy for your readers.

 Tip Ten

  • Identify the Themes within your Story

Draw out the broad human impulses: jealousy, betrayal, avarice, love, passion, pride, honour, humility and desire for power. These will bring your tale to life and form points of congruence for your reader. Mastery over one’s destiny and survival against all odds are issues that are pivotal to the human condition and the genre of historical fiction can teach us so much by exploring the dips and peaks of past experience. Distinct differences between then and now fascinate and intrigue us, but it is the emotional connection that we seek with our ancestors: from that comes continuity and hope.