• How I write: Day Five

    I’m at that stage I call the accummulation of random facts.  It involves reading, of course, and a lot of lying around half-asleep.  I wake up in the middle of the night and scribble sentences in a big A4 hardback notebook.  Random scenes begin to emerge.  Sometimes they’re no more than a glance between characters.  Sometimes snatches of dialogue or descriptions of a place with its particular atmosphere.  What I should be doing according to the standard ‘how to write a novel’ course is fleshing out my characters and refining my plot lines.  When I taught creative writing a few years ago in London I began with the line:  there is one rule for writing a novel , at which every pen became poised, only to say:  there are no rules.  Philosophically, of course, it’s ambiguous, but you get the point I’m sure.

    I’d planned to write chapter one on Monday morning but am being pulled by wild horses towards starting tomorrow.  Hildegard is eager to get up and at ’em.

    A point worth remembering is that words are not sacrosanct until you make them so.

    Meanwhile I read Chaucer writing about his astrolabe yesterday.  His son, ‘lytel Lewys,’ must have been a bright spark.  At the age of ten he was begging his father to show him how the astrolabe worked and Chaucer, good dad, decided to write it out for him like a little lesson, beginning with a description of what the astrolabe looked like and how it should be held and then going into ever more detail to demonstrate what it could do.  Apart from being able to measure the altitude of the stars, movements of the sun, timing of the tides and so forth, it could be used for astrology.  Chaucer set his constant fix on Oxford, that hotbed of Lollardry, so-called.  The scholars were free enough in King Richard II’s time to follow their researches into the seven liberal arts of which astronomy was one, without danger to themselves – until Arundel decided to hound them out.  This led them to a small fenland port on the river Cam where they set up shop again.  I believe there’s a unniversity and a science park there to this very day.  It was ten years later after usurper Henry IV seized the throne that burning at the stake was introduced into England as punishment for pioneering scientific thought, or indeed, any thought at all.

    I really need a stroll round Netlay Abbey to find out exactly where the guest quarters were and how the brothers got down to the quayside to unload their imports.   Fat chance though.  Car still kaput.


  • Birthday time: Day Four

    It’s King Richard II’s six hundred and fifty first birthday today.  I hope he’s celebrating somewhere in the ether.

    It’s also Epiphany but one of those, personally, is somewhat far off today.

    This whole blog-and-write entrerprise is already foundering.  I usually spend the first few days before starting chapter one by getting into the zone but it seems as if everything is conspiring to drag me back to the world of trivia – fridge breaking down, orders not being delivered, being overcharged in stupid shops, Ten Weeks That Changed England not downloading properly and would-be readers blaming me, and worse, car not working and the RAC who are supposed to help made me waste an hour on the phone yesterday, the only result being that my car still won’t go and their telephone operatives still need further training.  How is it possible to write with all this mundane stuff going on?  I’ve always seen the need for writers’ retreats but don’t fancy travelling overseas at this time.  Why are there so few retreats in England?  ( I bleat). There used to be the great St Deiniol’s Library in the Welsh Marches, perfect in every way until it was ‘modernised’ and turned into a ‘hotel with books’ as one of the habitues described it.  I don’t want a hotel, with or without books.  Couples sitting silently opposite each other at breakfast.  Everybody avoiding eye contact.  Conversation level zero.  It used to be full of erudite fellows with a sharp line in banter.  Outside the solitude of the library you had to be on your toes. Sadly that was yesteryear. Where are they now?

    Moan, moan, moan.

    I’ll never write anything in this frame of mind.

    At least Amazon have just rung me re my call for help and a charming woman in the Caribbean sorted out the problem in under ten minutes.  Ten Weeks is now completely downloadable and if it’s not on your ebook device a short call will bring help.  It’s a free download for Hildegard’s fans on Amazon prime.   Great system. Very grateful (the RAC could learn a lot).

    Next, deal with the car.  (Trip to Netley Abbey scrubbed for now)..

    Deal with car tax.

    Deal with Waitrose.

    Deal with unexpected bill.

    Deal with prosopagnosia training.

    Deal with the day’s food. (Forget wonky fridge for now.)

    Think about lovely phone call  last night (more later, I hope, re Dragon of Handale).

    Go to gym.

    Then think about The Alchemist at Netley Abbey.

    The WIP somebody called it.  The Work In Progress.  More like The WNIP.

    On the positive side I’ve at least started reading the Dennis Wheatley for his slant on the occult.  Not very relevant but a good read.  No wonder he was a best-seller in his day.  It’s a bit dated but even so he pitches right into the story on page one with strong characters, cliff-hanger chapters and, 100 pages in, an ever more labyrinthine plot.  Not characters mindlessly killing each other but real moral dilemmas, or at least real if you accept the existence of a left-hand path.

    After lunch it’s going to be Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe.  Read it ages ago but couldn’t make sense of it.  This time will try harder.

    Nowhere near The Zone at present.

    Chapter One on Monday seems very very far away.


  • How I write: Day Three

    Am not getting anywhere with the alchemy.  Despite wearing my writing clothes for three days and forcing myself not to write anything until Monday I’ve still no idea what the alchemist is even called, let alone what he’s up to.  I think he’s Welsh.  I can see hlim clearly, tall, boney, with one of those faces that don’t let you know whether they’re laughing at you or with you, and long fingers.  Trust him or trust him not?  Dunno.  His boy too, doomed or not?  A sprite, ill-fed but sharp as a sparrow.  What the hell has any of this to do with Hildegard?  Dunno that either.

    I think of taking a quick trip up to town to visit my dear old favourite library in Gordon Square.  They always have what I want.  Even though they’re an ecclesiastical, non-conformist sort of place I’m sure they’ll have something on alchemy, the beginning of rational scientific investigation, but I’ve just come back from a long train journey and feel like staying in my burrow while the frost lasts.   Nothing much online.  A dead loss.  Why don’t I know any magicians?  The novel by Dennis Wheatley arrived late last night from Amazon.  It looks prosaic to me.  I thought he was supposed to be into all that sort of stuff?  It seems to be a boy’s own adventure of the type you’d write if you were a fella and had just done a stint in WWII.  Shall start reading it later today in a cafe a few yards from where he actually put the words down.

    This blog will never do as a guide on how to write.  Well, it’s how I write.

    Am off to imbibe some vitamin D as it’s a gloriously sunny day.

    Train journeys always open the flood gates to new ideas so maybe I’ll think about that while I walk about.  Could go tomorrow.

    Or would it be better to haunt Netley Abbey instead?

  • How I write: Day Two

    This is a truly terrible start.  It’s nearly ten p.m. and I’ve only just got around to opening up the laptop.  The day hasn’t been entirely wasted though.  Despite walking into a street lamp and getting a biff on the head which is now the size of a duck egg, and despite the mobile phone suddenly going dark, and despite my hoped-for free download gift of Ten Weeks that Changed England Forever not being put out as free by Amazon  (and I’ve only just found out) at least I’ve done some random reading towards the new book.

    This isn’t how it should be of course.  A well-ordered author would have had their desk cleared of all extraneous stuff, with reference books neatly stacked, the file opened and ready to bear words freighted with infinite wisdom but instead I’ve sorted a few books and magazines into vital, useful, interesting or irrelevant but irresistible while the rest (the truly irrelevant like DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow) have been relegated to the garden bookroom.  Now I’m a wreck and it’s still only day 2.

    I got a bit side-tracked by something about the Templars in Yorkshire.  Obviously it’s before Hildegard’s time and for Book 8 it’s definitely the wrong county but I thought I might as well have a quick look to see if if there was anything useful there and then I was hooked.  It’s by Holloway and Colton and written in an engagingly racey style that makes you want to keep on reading.  I have to say it’s not always accurate but it’s a good intro for anybody interested in the Templars.

    I also read a few pages of what Ian Mortimer says about Henry of Lancaster during the summer of 1388, the period when the Netlay Abbey story is set.  I never agree with him about Henry.  He scarcely registers the barbaric and sheer malice and cruelty of the usuper king but waxes on about Richard’s so-called vindictiveness without a shred of evidence other than the opinions of his enemies.  I cannot gloss over the fact that Lancaster destroyed the Cistercian monastery Strata Florida and its scriptorium which rivalled that of Lindisfarne in the value of its books several centuries earlier.  It was a great seat of learning with an international reputation like Valle Crucis but Henry decided he couldn’t trust the monks – who were appalled that he had murdered his cousin, the legitimate and anointed king –  so he burned their books, destroyed their monastery and had about 200 monks put to death.  This is remembered in Wales but sadly we in England tend to have a blind spot about the Welsh.  What the Norman-English kings did to them is perhaps too shaming to contemplate.

    This led me onto a wonderful though short book about the life of Owain Glyn Dwr, the great Welsh patriot.  A humane and a well-educated man in a time when kights were barely literate he deserves more attention and I shall return to him more fully later.  This brief excursion off-road will not be wasted as he’s going to have a walk-on part at Netley Abbey.

    Somebody thought I was writing a blog about how to write a novel.  Not so!  I’m writing about how I’m writing my next novel.  Which is probably a lesson in how not to go about the task in the first place.

    So this is day 2, roughly speaking.  Read a little about alchemy, astrology, astronomy, medieval science and philosophy as grist to the mill.  But I think it’s time to lie down now and nurse the egg.

  • New Year, new book.

    I don’t know whether anybody bothers with blogs that aren’t about cats, food or fashion but I thought it might be interesting to blog about the new novel I’m about to start as a way of tracking what happens when I write.   Readers often ask ‘how do you write?’ and I am myself always interested in how other writers go about it but it’s a mysterious process and I’ve always taken it for granted.  There’s no right way or wrong way, of course.  We all eventually find the way that suits us.

    Put simply, I get up, shower while mulling over the story, quickly breakfast, then start.  Superficially it’s that straightforward.  About five thousand words later I stop.  End of story (or at least half a chapter).

    Of course there’s more. For instance, I love that feeling right at the beginning, staring at a blank screen with nothing on it and then slowly beginning to find it filling with characters and events. Magic!  I love it.  There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.  It’s curious how that happens and this will be an attempt to find out how it does – and it’ll shadow the novel I’m working on in another way (see later) which will be about alchemy as well as a lot of other things.   Why alchemy?  I get bored when faced with the well-worn so I usually choose a theme I know nothing about. (Stained glass in The Law of Angels, palace of the anti-pope in The Butcher of Avignon).  I’m not all that interested in a lot of sword-play and spilled guts stuff. I find it superficial.   I like my people to have some heart-felt emotions, a strong motivation, a vibrant inner life, loves and hates and a desire to understand themselves, like the real people I know.  Apart from that, how I happen to write should reveal itself in what follows.

    I have to admit I’m a little bit frightened.   Maybe the energy of the novel will disappear by writing it out?  Novels need darkness and silence, to lie undisturbed, like seeds underground.  Or so I’ve always believed.  Surely it’s a bad thing to talk out your story to anybody before you start?  Maybe in a general way it’s ok in order to firm up ideas, but not to talk about the characters before you’ve discovered them properly, surely?  I’d be devastated if I accidentally  killed my baby at birth.

    Another thing – this is all going to be random, I see that – some writers, particularly women for some reason, talk about writing a novel as like baking a cake. I’m not really interested in cakes that much myself, but also I find this strangely prosaic.  How dull!  How domestic!  I see it as a much more exciting and magical process.  It’s more like delving into a magic pool and finding mysterious life beneath the surface. It’s discovery, revelation, secrets brought to light, frightening, dangerous in the places where it leads, always a walk into the unknown.  Nothing domestic about it.  But that’s me.  As I said before, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. I see I’ve already got a lot of different images here of what it’s like.  This is another reason why I’ve never risked writing about writing.  Too confusing.  Oh well, I’ve started.  Maybe I won’t go on with it tomorrow.

    Just to clear the ground on this first day, though,  I’ll tell you that the next book is number eight in the Hildegard series, and is called The Alchemist at Netley Abbey and to answer another often-asked question, how do you get your ideas, this one came to me last summer when I was asked to read at a Waterstone’s book event and thought:  why not write something new for them?

    Out of nowhere came  a short, quick piece about an alchemist.

    That was the first mystery.  Why an alchemist?  I’m a rational type and don’t believe in ghosts and all that fiddle-faddle but it’s always interested me how and why people dedicate so much time to what we  call magic.  What do they hope to find?

    When I was a teenager I read Aleister Crowley’s tome, ‘Magick,’  and was intrigued by the remorseless detail of his writing and the logic he applied to something that doesn’t exist.  Or does it?  I was uncertain at the time.  What if it was all true?   Was he really in touch with strange powers?  I dunno.  The interesting bit for me is that the medieval alchemists were, as the name suggests, our first chemists – al-chemist – and were open to ideas from the Islamic world where this sort of thing was being studied.  So the alchemists were proto-scientists and international scholars.  I find that intriguing and heroic. Without them we’d have no science and probably no internet.

    So there we have this character, still shady, no name, no face, but a starting point.

    This start actually has an earlier one as I suddenly realise.  Around the time of that same summer book event I was idly looking at a map to see if there was an abbey Hildegard might have visited after landing at Lepe on the south coast on her way home from Avignon and I came across the name Netley, googled it, found it was Cistercian (good) and on the coast (interesting) and had been a favourite of Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey) and many other writers of that romantic period.  It was apparently ivy-covered, swarming with ghosts and very beautiful. I decided to visit.  .

    To clinch matters, I  was interviewed by some publicity people that same week and competely out of the blue (magic?) one of them happenef to mention Netley.  What!?  I exclaimed, the abbey!!?  I’ve just googled something about that place.  What’s it like?  They told me a bit then said they might run a literary festival there next year (this year now, of course) and what else they said made me really keen to see it.

    Everything they told me was true.

    It’s cleaned up a bit now but still beautiful and romantic and the ghosts can easily be imagined.  Better still was the intriguing coment that nothing had happened there (apart from a death or two) for over three hundred yeaars.  Wow!  Is that so?  No way.  Something would definitely happen when Hildegard arrived in the summer of 1388.

    So that’s the first little seed of the idea and all I have to do now is find out everything about alchemy (by next week)  and why it has any relevance to Netley and Hildegard’s visit.

    I do so want to start writing but I know nothing about anything and am going to have to hold back for a few days.  I’ll start next Monday morning (still knowing nothing) and see what happens.

    Before then I might have a look at one or two related writers apart from the alchemical ones, for the arbitrary reason that my little house is built in the grounds of one of the most famous English novelists to write about the occult.  He was a massive best-seller in his day and the locals say he was possessed by the devil.  His beautiful manor house was pulled down in the 60’s and the developers saw fit to build a prosaic group of ‘homes’ in his once magnificent rambling gardens.  I haven’t read anyting he’s written yet but if Amazon do their stuff I should have some of his novels in my hands by tomorrow morning.  I’d like to feel his spirit watching over me but fear that it’s all fantasy.   Facts are what I want.  I must remember that.

    Well, I think that’s all for today, folks.  The sun is shining.  It’s the beginning of a new year and a great time to set out on a journey into the unknown.

    I hope you’ll come with me.

    P.S If you follow me @nunsleuth on twitter you’ll find some pictures of Netley as it is today.




  • What did Hildegard do first?

    I thought it might be in the spirit of Christmas to offer a free download of a prequel to Hildegard’s first appearance in Hangman Blind.  Readers often ask: why did she become a nun?  or:  what did she do before she joined the Cistercians?  Consequently I’ve spent the last week staring with ever straining eyes at my screen trying to get 14,000 words onto Kindle and offering it for nothing more than the ability to download it.  Imagine my dismay after all this to discover that it can only be offered for 5 days for free and afterwards will have to have a price.  I’m hoping this will be at the lowest  allowed on Kindle, something like 99p.  So if you want it free you can try downloading it from tomorrow, Saturday.  I hope it will fill in a few blanks in Hildegard’s story.  I should warn you it’s a bit of an experiment in style – with no publisher to please, I was able to write as I felt.  I hope you like it.

    Hildegard has  never had her back story written down although I had a vague idea of what she did when I first discovered her and it has been great to trace her origins from the time of her marriage to the big and nasty Hugh de Ravenscar to her unexpected decision to become a nun. Knowing how much she likes men I’ve always felt it was a strange decision for her to make.  But then,  being the independent woman she is, I always knew she hated the idea of being a wife without personal power.  To be a  femme sole puts her more or less on equal legal footing with men of her class.

    The prequel opens at the point where Hildegard is in London to establish her claim on her husband’s lands in the Welsh Marches.  Seven years before the series opens a vitriolic and important parliament was called by King Edward III.  The Commons decided that enough was enough.  If they were to be taxed to kingdom come they wanted a say in things.  It was really important in terms of opening up government to the people although at this time ordinary folk (like me and maybe you) still had no chance of getting a say in how we were governed.

    All topical now with the same question still being asked:  where does sovereignty reside, with the people, or with parliament?  Or, as recently and as also in Plantagenet times, with a foreign power?  In their case much power lay with the pope in Rome, in our case…?  It took someone like Henry VIII to wrest power from Rome and with it the payment of taxes and an affirmation of national sovereignty.  Let’s hope that this time around there is no unfortunate Anne Boleyn to pay the price.

    Now that Hildegard is making a showing on twitter I’m also going to put up a few factoids  @nunsleuth on some of the things that interest her.  I hope you’ll follow her and ask a few questions to keep her on her toes.

    All the best!  Keep those messages rolling in.  It’s lovely to find readers so keen on medieval matters and that Hildegard has so many friends around the world.



  • Medieval Widowhood

    medueval widow

  • Prostitutes and Goldsmiths

    Once upon a time there was a small patch of London owned by German merchants.  It was called the Steelyard and was a walled off area on the banks of the Thames near where Cannon Steet tube station is now.  The group of Germans refused to allow Englishmen to enter its gates along with prostitutes, goldsmiths and barbers.   You might think these were an odd bunch to exclude but it was not, surely, as odd as allowing a foreign power to establish ownership of this area at the heart of the City of London.

    It was in fact the headquarters of a commercial monopoly called the Hanse.  Established in 1157 the league persuaded the English king Henry II to exempt its merchants from paying tolls in London and to trade freely at the lucrative fairs then being established across England.  Did the German merchants give reciprocal privileges to English merchants wishing to trade in Germany and the Baltic?  No, they did not.  To make their monopoly even stronger they obtained a charter from King Henry III confirming their rights.

    How on earth did they do this?   What posssessed the ruler of England to hobble his traders in this way?  That’s what English merchants wanted to know but, as now, deals were done in secret and those people lower down the line only got to know about them when they were done deals and they were forced to comply.

    Naturally a power struggle began between the Hanseatic League and the English merchants with parliament refusing to accept the charter of privileges granted to the Germans without the same terms being offered to English merchants.  The Hanse merchants refused to compromise and although England was riven by its own internecine factions in the late fifteenth century war broke out and the Steelyard was attacked and destroyed by an angry mob of London traders.

    Meanwhile the Norwegian guilds attacked the Hanse merchants who were trying to close down Norwegian trade in the Baltic by blockading their ports.  Other countries also objected to this unfair monopoly and took steps to protect themselves.  In England it was not until Elizabeth I over one hundred years later thought to protect her merchants by abolishing the Hanse in London that the Steelyard was finally closed down.

    Why was Henry II so sot-witted that he did not see the sense of protecting his own people from this aggressive trading faction working within his own domain?  We might well ask similar questions now as the City is again under attack from a German Stock Exchange monopoly which will eventually lead to the demise of our own stock exchange when the Germans will then no doubt do a ‘Cadbury’ on it.


  • How to make a straw hat

    DSCN0859Medieval hat making

  • Book Signings

    DSCN0856Just back from the fabulous Herstmonceux Castle medieval weekend where I was lucky enough to sign a few books and talk to old friends who have been with the series from the beginning.  It gave me the opportunity to have a look at Hangman Blind, the first book about Hildegard and her gang of sleuthing friends.  In the back I discovered a useful note which I’d forgotten,  about how I came to write the series in the first place.  It really came down to finding the chronicle from the Abbey of Meaux written in 1396, exactly the period when the series is set.  It was by one of the abbots (not Hubert de Courcy, alas, only a figment of my imagination) but Abbot Thomas Burton who was abbot throughout King Richard II’s reign.  I’ll say a bit more about him another time.  For now I want to try to show you some of the pix from Herstmonceux of the many amazing medieval craftsfolk I met there and show you something of the wonderful  work they do.  Here’s the apothecary’s work bench with an alembic for distilling herbs.  From book 1 Hangman Blind to the new book 8 The Alchemist at Netley Abbey – this will definitely be a feature. Alchemists, from which we get our word chemist, and apothecaries, licensed to sell cures, were the scientists of their day.