I’m thrilled to share with you the news of my sequels to A Shape on the Air! The next two feature the same main protagonists, Dr Viv DuLac and Rev Rory Netherbridge, so beloved of my readers. [ http://myBook.to/ASOTA ]
The Dragon Tree is set on the beautiful island of Madeira where Viv and Rory escape a personal tragedy, and it features a 14th century shipwrecked noblewoman and a 16th century rebellious nun. Can Viv solve the mystery of the historical link between them and find peace for herself and the island? [ http://myBook.to/TDT ]
The Rune Stone returns to England and features Viv and Rory’s quiet country churchyard where they discover an ancient rune stone with a mysterious runic inscription. We return also to the Anglo-Saxon Lady Vivianne and Sir Roland. Can Viv bring resolution to Lady Vivianne and harmony to Rory’s parish? [ http://myBook.to/TRS ]
It starts: We can see that throughout history and different cultures, society organises itself into groups and subgroups, usually based on religion or economic standing. In early Anglo-Saxon Britain there were social classes, in some ways similar to our modern understanding of hierarchies, in that there were ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ social classes, but in some ways they were very different from ours today. Anglo-Saxon and Celtic-British settlements were becoming increasingly expansive as the external threats grew. It made sense to band together for security and ‘manpower’. Settlements were headed by the chieftain, or ‘cūning’, from which we derive the word ‘king’. Even where the settlement was headed by a queen (rare!) she was still referred to as the ‘cūning’ in Anglo-Saxon. The word ‘cwene’ (queen) was usually only used for the wife of a king. The heir to the chieftaincy was the ‘ætheling’. Then there were the ‘ealdormen’ (elders) and the ‘thegns’, who were the nobles who were entitled to fight for the king at the head of troops and lead warriors into battle, and thus highly regarded. They often had their own family crests and banners which they fought under … [Read the rest at https://juliaibbotsonauthor.com/2021/06/21/living-with-the-anglo-saxons/ ] and follow the series ‘Living with the Anglo-Saxons’ sessions 2 -7 on food, houses, diet, etc.
I’ve been looking at Anglo-Saxon life in my series of blogs: Living with the Anglo-Saxons, covering social structures, houses, settlements, clothes, food and drink, feasting, health and medicine of the period, and the status of women. There is not a huge amount of hard evidence from archaeology or documents to reveal a great deal about the times. As a writer, I need to use my powers of assumption and imagination from what little we have.
But knowledge is increasing as the Anglo-Saxon period becomes more popular as a research area.
And in January 2021, there came news of a report of an archaeological dig in Overstone, Northamptonshire (further reported in in Current Archaeology 2.3.21, issue 373). The site was being excavated from 2019 by MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) for a national house builder on the proposed site of a housing estate development. An Anglo-Saxon cemetery and settlement was beginning to be unearthed, revealing information about not only defence but everyday domestic life in an Anglo-Saxon settlement. Very rarely has a cemetery and settlement been unearthed at the same site in the same single excavation. The current tally of findings is:
154 burials (many grave goods reflecting status)
42 structures spread over the site (sunken-feature buildings and post-built structures)
at least 3,000 artefacts, including:
75 wrist clasps
15 chatelaines (decorative belt clasps)
Various domestic artefacts such as ‘cosmetic kits’ including beautifully carved bone combs
Fragments of Anglo-Saxons textiles, which are very rarely preserved: these were buried next to metal objects causing them to become mineralised.
The human remains will tell us much about the Anglo-Saxon diet and health as well as their origins (very exciting in terms of information about migration!) and the artefacts will show us more about everyday life of the times.
I’m looking forward to further analysis of the finds and new learning on this fascinating historical period … The Anglo-Saxons!
Incidentally, evidence of Bronze Age burials in three round barrows were also found at the site, radiocarbon dated back as far as 2000BC.
Anglo Saxon women: peace-weavers or shield-maidens?
I was interested to catch up with Kathleen Herbert’s excellent little book “Peace-Weavers and Shield Maidens” (2013, first published in 1997) on the image of women in early English society. She begins by commenting that people often tend to think of ‘English life’ as dating from 1066 whereas the first account of the ‘English’ (the ‘Anglii’, a Germanic race) was in Cornelius Tacitus’s ‘Germania’ in 98 AD and they worshipped a goddess, Nerthus (among other gods). As an aside, I’m not so sure about the 1066 bit – I would have said that people do tend to think of the Anglo Saxons from the 5th/6th centuries as the original ‘English’, despite the fact that before those migrants hit our shores the population comprised mainly Britons and Celts.
However, the stories and legends focusing on women, Herbert suggests, tend to fall into two archetypes: we might call them peace-weavers and shield-maidens. Herbert argues that women did fight and lead troops in early history, but were also literally and metaphorically peace-weavers, often through expedient marriages to form alliances with other kingdoms to avert potential strife. This seems to have been a widespread tactic to retain peace. Women might also be shield-maidens, literally or metaphorically as strategists in times of conflict. The two terms might well be interlinked and overlapping.
This is not to say that there weren’t violent battles for supremacy of a geographical region, that new kingdoms were not formed through victory in war. Of course, we have evidence of many battles leading to changes in power across different regions. But we also have evidence of deals and negotiation to co-exist.
Britain was composed of many small kingdoms, and kingdoms fought to take over other kingdoms and thus wield greater power over a larger region. But our theories of this time of great change are beginning to recognise the way that stable everyday life and the quest for peace were also significant. Hence, in my Dr DuLac Anglo-Saxon time-slip series (#1 A Shape on the Air and especially its #3 sequel, The Rune Stone, coming out soon), I have Lady Vivianne (early 6th century ‘cūning’ or king/queen) as “peace-weaver”, although her husband is a fighting warrior. Her elevation to respected status over other kingdoms, and especially that of the Icelings in The Rune Stone, is to all intents and purposes that of honorary “warrior”, a status almost always used for men who were normally the fighters, but this is as a result not only of her strategising but also of her peace-making abilities.
Yes, the term “peace-weaver” was often used for women who brought peace between two kingdoms through marriage, but it was also used for women who were more active on their own account in the forging of peace between kingdoms, as Lady Vivianne is depicted as undertaking in my series. These female leaders could be strategists, not necessarily fighters joining battle; they could be mainly working for the defence of their kingdom: active peace-makers. These were leaders whose warrior status was conferred not by fighting but by directing. Annie Whitehead (in Women of Power, 2020) refers to a saying about Ǣthelflaed, the10th century Lady of the Mercians and daughter of King Alfred, who strategized battles to take Derby, Leicester, York, that she was a “man in valour, a woman in name”. So, to all intents and purposes we can take Lady Vivianne as one who, like Ǣthelflaed, is a brave and courageous ruler; she is a true “cūning” and “peace-weaver”.
Read about Lady Vivianne and her present day counterpart Dr Viv DuLac in A Shape on the Air at http://myBook.to/ASOTA
In the last blog, I looked at what we know about food and drink in the Anglo-Saxon period. In many ways it might seem to us today that the Anglo-Saxon diet was healthy: no sugar, no fast foods, no ready meals, no additives, no processed foods – all the things dietitians and nutritionists are concerned about these days. So we tend to make assumptions based on our 21st century perspectives of a ‘healthy diet’ or ‘unhealthy foods’. We don’t have the Anglo-Saxon perspective on this!
The paucity of skeletal evidence from bio-archaeological or osteo-archaeological findings make it difficult to assess disease and chronic illnesses of the period. Our assumptions might be that there was lower incidence of obesity, heart disease, cancers because the diet consisted for many people of fresh fruit and vegetables, cereals, fresh meat and fish (although the latter two were more prevalent in the diet of the higher status Anglo-Saxons). And we might assume that this would lead to an increase in dental health, average height, increased recovery rate from infections. But without documentary or widespread archaeological evidence it’s hard to make generalisations.
We do know that there would have been a reliance on seasonal fresh produce because preservation was hard, which could be a problem if the harvest was affected by climate or major weather systems and this would be a vulnerability for Anglo-Saxon settlements. For example, there is evidence of a major volcanic eruption in the mid-530s which caused significant climate change, cold, darkness, ruined harvests. The resulting famine, hunger and starvation, would result in increased disease and deaths. We also know that there was a significant pandemic of bubonic plague in 541-2. Although this may not have been caused by diet it would certainly have ramifications on food production and availability.
The lack of food preservation techniques would exacerbate this vulnerability. There were few means to preserve perishable foodstuffs, apart from drying, smoking, and salting. Salt became such a precious commodity that some might be paid in salt, and social status was marked by how near or far you sat from the salt at feasts (‘above or below the salt’ was a common expression, being ‘below the salt’ indicating lower status). Foods such as fish and meat would be encased in salt for preservation, but it was also used to mask the taste of bad food.
Rotten perishable food was a significant health risk, but it was arguably not entirely widely recognised in this period. We think that it tended to be thought that it was the taste of bad food that was the problem, rather than the bacteria in rotting food. So, as a result, the Anglo-Saxons were keen to disguise the taste of bad food with salt, herbs and marinades. There would have been a significant risk of illness from food poisoning, from meat from cattle that were carriers of disease, and a weakening of strength when physical activity was paramount for the life of the community.
What about Anglo-Saxon medicine? Bald’s Leechbook (9th century) available in the British Library, and other documents, provide some interesting evidence of the way illness and disease was treated in this period. For example, various treatments were advised for wounds, throat infections, skin conditions and some for more serious diseases. Herbs were used for infusions, ointments, salves and poultices (eg an eye salve from garlic), and recipes are given for problems such as nettles for muscular pain. Eating animal liver is cited as a ‘cure for the plague’. The Leechbook suggests a concoction of leek, garlic, wine and bullock’s gall, which was reported in 2015 as a potion that could potentially kill methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)!
A final thought: there is emerging evidence from Anglo-Saxon sites in Cambridgeshire and Kent from the analysis of human skeletal remains for carbon and nitrogen isotopes that suggest diverse diets based on wealth and social status. For example, some studies suggest that higher status, wealthier Anglo-Saxons ate more meat and fish, and lower status people ate more vegetables, and possibly were, in some case, largely vegetarian. This is an ongoing analysis, but it would be interesting to know whether this related to the level of health.
PS Would you like to know more about life in the Anglo-Saxon period? My novel A Shape on the Air is set in 499 AD as Angle and Saxon tribes began to settle in Britain, although of course this happened over the course of several centuries.
Earlier in 2021 I was delighted to be asked to speak to the Leeds Symposium on Food, Drink and Health, which develops learning on these aspects of historical research. My session was, of course (!) on the Anglo-Saxon period. The following is based on some of the research I outlined in the session …
There was a rich mead hall culture in Anglo-Saxon times; the mead hall was where the community feasts were held and was a focal point in the village or settlement. ‘Mead’ was the common alcoholic drink made from honey, widely drunk, and especially at communal meals, thus the hall was named after it.
Literary evidence from the 7th or 8th century heroic poem Beowulf (the dating isn’t clear) indicates the riches of the hall and its decoration: ‘tapestries worked in gold glittered on the walls’, ‘eofor-līc scionon ofer hlēor-bergan: gehroden golde’ (‘boar-crests glittered above the helmets adorned with gold’), ‘māđm-æht’ (‘precious treasures’), ‘bēag-gyfa’ (the treasure-giver, or lord/leader/chieftain/king). The feasting and drinking is emphasised in the poem and many Anglo-Saxon words emphasise the importance of mead: ‘medo-ful’ (the mead cup), ‘medo-benc’ (the mead benc), ‘medu-drēam’ (revelry in mead-drinking and feasting).
There would be entertainment during the meal: a scōp would be employed, the poet/musician who entertained with ‘harp and voice’ (not a harp as we know it), and the poetry and story-telling would celebrate both traditional Christian and pagan heroic deeds and values. These narrative poems would honour and glorify the community and unify the society.
The mead hall was the centre of the pre-Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Saxon village community. It was important as the Witan council, the decision-making meeting, was usually held in the mead hall and often before a feast. Wooden trestle tables were used for eating and could be dismantled or set up easily and quickly for council meetings. It was the focus of village life, eating and drinking together consolidated the stability of the community.
Feasts in the mead hall would be frequent in Anglo-Saxon times, and feast days for the whole community were usually held according to the journey of the moon: commemorating the full moon, new moon, winter solstice, summer solstice, etc.
But the general feasts were not necessarily for everyone in the village. There was a strict hierarchy. The serfs would serve at tables and they and the cooks would eat separately, but they still ate similarly to the thegns, ealdormen and ladies. The ceorls (lower class free men) might be included at table if they held a particular office. But the gebūrs (not in serfdom but keeper of ‘rented’ allotment of land) would not usually be included. The serfs, never.
There would be a ‘high table’ with the cūning/cyning (king/leader), ealdormen and high thegns. At right angles down the hall were the trestle tables for the other nobles. They would be used mainly at noon and evening for communal eating; evening meals in winter were by the light of flaming ‘torches’ in sconces on the wall and hanging cressets filled with oil. There would usually be a huge firepit in the middle of hall.
Whether in the mead hall or in their own houses, most Anglo-Saxons would use wooden bowls, platters and spoons. Everyone had their own knife (a seax or small version of a seax), worn in a leather pouch hanging from their belt at their waist. The wealthier people would have drinking horns for mead and perhaps even glass goblets for wine.
Although there is evidence that the Anglo-Saxons imported dates, figs, raisins and almonds, these would be for the wealthy. But berries and nuts from the hedgerows were plentiful for all. There is also evidence that agriculture changed from primarily arable to grazing land and there would be livestock for meat: eg chicken, cattle, pigs, sheep, ducks. There was often settlement provision and also individual families kept animals for food within their own living quarters: usually pigs and hens, often a cow. So dairy was accessible: milk, butter, cheese, eggs.
Settlements were usually sited near to rivers, for transport rather than drinking as the water was often contaminated (thus beer and ale were popular as well as mead) and fish would be caught, using simple nets, traps and line: trout, salmon, eels, perch, pike and even cockles, scallops and oysters.
On arable land and on the little patches of land next to individual houses, Anglo-Saxons would grow vegetables for the table: leeks (used for health remedies too), beans, peas, turnips, onions. Geburs might rent a patch of land for vegetables.
Arable farming produced spelt, wheat (for bread), rye, barley (for ale), oats (for bread, porridge, cakes). Ancient recipes indicate that bread could be made with ground wheat (flour) and water only, no salt (too precious!) or oil or yeast. Salt was extremely precious because it was the main source of food preservation and often used to mask the bad taste of rotting meat. Herbs were also used for this purpose as well as to flavour and tenderise, for marinades, etc.
There was no sugar, so honey was widely used to sweeten food and drinks (hence honeyed mead). Honeyed bread was a delicacy!
NB further reading:
Ann Hagen (2010) Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink: production, processing and consumption (Anglo-Saxon Books)
Debby Banham (2004) Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England (The History Press)
In the next blog, I’ll be looking at how healthy/unhealthy the Anglo-Saxon diet seems to be …
You might like to read more about those times, a fascinating period of English history, in my novel A Shape on the Air. It’s an Anglo-Saxon time-slip mystery available on Amazon at
The ‘Dark Ages’: barbaric, primitive, brutal, murderous? People illiterate, uncivilised. Tribes of Angles and Saxons marauding, hacking their way across Britain and cruelly wiping out the native Britons and Celts, slaying all in their path? Dark dangerous days after the Romans left; everything crumbled, decayed, ruined?
In the first of my Dr DuLac series, A Shape on the Air, one thread in Viv’s narrative is the notion that the ‘dark ages’ tend to be misconstrued as primitive, that the ‘dark ages’ are only dark because we know little about them from the relative paucity of surviving evidence and artefacts. As a specialist in early medieval language, literature and history, I am excited by the idea that this historical period wasn’t primitive and barbaric, but in fact refined with a rich culture from its Roman, Briton and Celtic heritage – and indeed from rich foreign trade. Gold, jewelry, embroideries, tapestry wall hangings, crafted utensils, glass: the feasting halls of the chieftains would have glowed with wealth.
Let’s look at the more recent discoveries about the world of late fifth century Britain, for example the site near Lyminge in Kent, where an early feasting hall has been unearthed and evidence revealed of a good and settled domestic life. The Romans left us with not only an engineering and building heritage but also a cultural one. I am also intrigued by the exploration of the bronze age settlement at Must Farm in the fens, dating from long before the setting of my story, yet revealing a sophistication of crafts, utensils, clothing, domesticity and foreign trade all of which I am convinced would have become a surviving part of the British psyche. Both Lyminge and Must Farm discoveries are mentioned in my story.
So, archaeological evidence is at last beginning to emerge and we have new and exciting tools to discover more. Domestic archaeology is also beginning to indicate that sites were occupied and developed long after Romans began to leave, and that there was continuity of occupation/population (eg Lyminge, Mucking, Barton Court, Orton Hall, Rinehall, West Heslerton, to name a few). Artefacts and building use suggest that there was a much more gradual change post-Roman occupation and during the migration of new waves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, rather than a period of decline and sudden brutal invasions. Hence there was a slower cultural shift towards a settled British society. Of course, this is not to say that there weren’t any bitter inter-tribal battles going on for land acquisition, and between local chieftains for power supremacy, nor that there wasn’t deep suspicion of the Angles and Saxons by the native Britons and Celts.
But the ‘modernist’ view is that there was much more mingling of Romano-British society than previously thought, through inter-marriage with Romans who remained after the Roman troop withdrawals, and a similar intermingling between Britons and the immigrant Angles and Saxons.
This view of gradual change and evolution from immigration and settlement, rather than sudden brutal change from invasion and suppression by Anglo-Saxon marauders, is one advocated by (among others) Professor Susan Oosthuizen (The Emergence of the English 2019). She offers some fascinating insights into evidence from documentary, archaeological, and landscape studies and her emerging view is that the ‘dark ages’ were not so dark, barbaric and brutal as we had previously imagined.
So perhaps it’s time to ditch the ‘Dark Ages’ title. So what can we call this post-Roman pre-Anglo-Saxon period instead? Some academics use ‘early medieval’. Oosthuizen uses the term ‘late antique’ for the period 400-600AD (with ‘early medieval’ for 600-850AD). What do you think?
Where did you get the inspiration for the book/series?
To be honest, my ideas come into my mind pretty much unbidden. I’m constantly curious about people, relationships, history, things around me, and I read and research a great deal, but of course it takes a lot of imagination to develop the ideas into a viable story. In the first of the Dr DuLac series, A Shape on the Air, I wanted Dr Viv to have a troubled relationship, to have a traumatic experience that would lead to a time-slip and a deep connection to another woman in the distant past. The idea for A Shape on the Air came from my interest in early medieval history which was my first research field, the post-Roman, early Anglo Saxon era, commonly called the Dark Ages. I’d been reading recent research, mainly archaeological stuff, that supported my view that it wasn’t so ‘dark’ in the sense of barbaric fighting, invasions, and brutality, but that it was actually marked by richness and diversity. I am also very interested in the concept of time and I’d wanted to write a time-slip for ages – but then you have to think, how could it actually happen to normal people in their everyday lives?
Do you write using pen and paper or on a computer?
I write on my computer so that I can easily edit as I go, but my research notes and planning notes and graphs are usually the old pen and paper, and post-its everywhere. I have a pinboard beside my desk and I fill it for the novel I’m currently writing, with pictures from the history I’m writing about and inspiration for characters. For example my inspiration for Dr Viv is a pic of Rachel Weiss (looking elegant and thoughtful) and Rev Rory is James Norton in the role of Rev Sidney Chambers (gorgeous!). And there are lots of pics of early medieval banqueting halls (mead halls), Anglo Saxon warriors and ladies, a dark ancient mere, and the prototype of Viv’s apartment which is actually somewhere I once lived just outside Oxford.
Who is your favourite character out of your stories and why?
My favourite character is always the one I’m writing at the moment! In A Shape on the Air, I loved Dr Viv/Lady Vivianne (traumatised by Pete’s betrayal/Sir Pelleas’s brutality) and Rev Rory/Sir Roland (a hunk but also sensitive and caring), but I was especially fond of Tilly/Tilda who is very sweet and such fun I really enjoyed writing her.
If you were a character in your story, which would you like to be?
I think it would have to be Lady Vivianne because I guess 499 AD would have been an exciting time to live in, caught between the Roman world and before the Anglo Saxon era was properly established. It was a time of change and uncertainty but also an opportunity for making your mark. Women were respected as part of the leadership of communities and Lady Vivianne holds her own in difficult circumstances. And I think she’s a good person with the interests of her community at heart. Although she was brought up as the daughter of the king/chieftain, she is not arrogant or entitled; she wants a more equal world.
How and why did you choose the names for your main characters?
I started with Lady Vivianne. The names Vivianne, Nimue, Nivian etc are the names associated with the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend (which is important in the story) and I had to choose a name that could translate to a modern equivalent, hence Dr Viv. Likewise Sir Roland which was a common name in English and French medieval legend, and then Rory came from that. It was the same for all the other characters in the two time periods. I deliberately didn’t choose totally authentic pre-Anglo Saxon/Britonic names because that wouldn’t have worked with the dual times and additionally, they would have been more difficult to read! It was a conscious decision to approximate a modernisation of historic names. After all, I’m writing characters who are from different ‘tribes’: Briton, Celtic, Roman, Angles, Saxons!
What are your future plans as an author?
I’ve written the sequel to A Shape on the Air and it’s set in Madeira. It’s provisionally called The Dragon Tree. Again Viv has a traumatic experience, so you can guess what that leads to! It is a time-slip/dual time story and goes back to the 14th and 16th centuries on the island which were fascinating times. I’ve also written the third in the Dr DuLac series, The Rune Stone, which returns to my favourite early medieval mystery. It involved a lot of research into ancient runes which was fascinating. Moving house in between lockdowns created a hiatus for me (so much to do and hard to concentrate) but I’m now starting a new novel, Daughter of Mercia which has cross-overs to the Dr DuLac series. For the moment, I want to stick with early medieval/Anglo-Saxon time-slip mysteries, as this has become my identified author brand. But who knows …?
Two main places: I do actually have my own study (husband banned, except for kindly plying me with coffee!) and I work at my antique desk with all my research books and papers handily in the big bookshelf next to me. For A Shape on the Air, as with all my books, I have a ‘mood board’ on the wall beside me, with pics of inspirations for the main characters (it’s Rachel Weiss and James Norton) and pics that represent Dr Viv’s apartment, the mere and Anglo-Saxon life and times. I also like to write in the conservatory so that I can look out at the garden which gives me peace and inspiration. I write most weekdays as I resigned from the university in order to write fulltime and I try to write a session in the mornings and again in the afternoons, so I keep to ‘office times’ as far as poss. It doesn’t always work out, though, because if it’s a nice day I want to be outside, walking in the countryside or gardening!
– Do you have a certain ritual?
My main ritual really is that I go swimming first thing in the mornings (I do 20-30 lengths) and usually have a session in the gym while I’m there. Then when I get back home at about 9.30 I can feel ‘noble’ after my exercise and set my mind to my work. I ALWAYS take my first coffee of the day with me to the study. I check my emails first in case there’s anything I need to address, but I try to avoid social media until I’ve met my target for the day.
– Is there a drink or some food that keeps you company while you write?
I’m afraid that I drink far too much fresh coffee while I’m working; I have a coffee pot constantly on the go. But I compensate with camomile tea at other times! I don’t eat while I’m on my computer but I do stop for breaks and usually have fresh fruit – or if I’ve been baking I grab a ginger flapjack or almond macaroon or whatever!
– What is your favourite book?
It changes, because I’m an avid reader and the latest one is usually my current favourite. But some stand the test of time in my heart: I love anything by Kate Atkinson and Pamela Hartshorne. I love historicals and time-slips (because this is my ‘brand’ too)!
– Would you consider writing a different genre in the future?
I have written in several genres already (contemporary and historical romance, children’s, etc) but at present I see my ‘brand’ as medieval time-slip mystery romance, which is what A Shape on the Air is – and also my WIP (working title The Dragon Tree)which is a sequel.
– Do you sometimes base your characters on people you know?
I guess most writers base characters on people they know in some way (we’re terrible people-watchers) but mine are generally amalgamations of different people. I pick characteristics and merge them into my characters, so they are, hopefully, unique. Possibly some of the characters in the Drumbeats Trilogy were nearer to known people than usual. But characters in A Shape in the Air mix up various friends of mine (don’t tell them!).
–Do you take a notebook everywhere in order to write down ideas that pop up?
I have a glorious collection of beautiful notebooks (constantly added to!) and I dousually have one in my bag, along with some of my collection of gorgeous pens. The only thing is that I tend to get ideas at awkward moments when I can’t pull the notebook out to write them down! I desperately try to keep the ideas in my head until I can scribble them down.
– Which genre do you not like at all?
I like most genres. I love crime, police procedurals and psychological thrillers, but I couldn’t ever write them (I don’t feel qualified enough). I don’t like anything gory or OTT blood-thirsty and I’m not keen on erotica or inflicted pain. I hated Fifty Shades!
– If you had the chance to co-write a book. Whom would it be with?
Barbara Erskine or Susanna Kearsley, because we’re on the same wave-length I think: medieval -ish time-slip Or maybe my friend Lizzie Lamb: although we write entirely different sorts of books, she’s excellent at marketing and promotion, so I’d feed off her!
– If you should travel to a foreign country to do research, which one would you chose and why?
Strangely enough, I’ve just been doing research in Madeira. My latest WIP is set there and involves its medieval history, 14th and 16th centuries. It’s a time-slip again so there’s present day Madeira to imbibe too. It’s provisionally called The Dragon Tree and it has the same main protagonists as A Shape on the Air: Dr Viv and Rev Rory, because I liked them so much I couldn’t let them go! My next will be the third in the series but they will be back in England at the Derbyshire rectory and my other favourite character (Tilly) will be back.
She asks me about the books that made me cry and if you scroll down there are also ten fun facts about me that you never knew!
What is the first book that made you cry?
Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) because I was mad with Jo and I thought that the gorgeous male protagonist married the wrong person (trying not to give spoilers). I was very young! Then One Day (David Nicholls) and latterly A Single Thread (Tracy Chevalier). I cry very easily, at just about everything! I even cry at my own books; A Shape on the Air, for example – what happened with Dr Viv’s partner, her mother, betrayal, Lady Vivianne’s betrothal, the mystery they had to solve … I’m almost in tears now!
How long, on average, does it take you to write a book?
I usually reckon 6 months for research and 6 months to write the book. Even if I know the historical research base well (as with early medieval/Anglo-Saxon England which was my original research field), I have to research specifics for that particular book. For A Shape on the Air I had to research minute details of daily life in 499 AD. The same with my Drumbeats Trilogy, which begins in Ghana, West Africa in the 1960s, even though I had lived there I had to research the locations and what was happening at that time (music, books, politics, current events, etc). I love reading about how people lived in a different historical period so it’s a joy to do the research. My problem is where to stop!
How do you select the names of your characters?
Oddly the names often arrive in my head before the complete plot. I tend to have a character and inciting incident/initial situation/conflict before I start. I always have a ‘mood board’ for each novel WIP on my pinboard beside my desk and when I have a picture of my character on it, the name follows pretty quickly. Maybe because when I sit in a restaurant/bus/train and do my naughty ‘people watching’ I give them names as well as jobs and situations. For A Shape on the Air, I chose a picture of Rachel Weiss and thought of Dr Viv, and James Norton and thought of Rev Rory. Don’t ask me why! But it’s also true that I had to find similar names that fitted both time periods: Dr Viv in the present and Lady Vivianne in 499 AD, Rev Rory/Sir Roland, Tilly/Tilda, and so on. I decided not to use completely authentic names for 499 AD as the characters were from different ‘tribes’ or ethnicities (Roman, Celtic, Briton, Saxon etc) and some would not be so easy to read for the modern reader. For myself, I always found it hard to read names I have to really concentrate on to remember.
What creature do you consider your “spirit animal” to be?
I’d like it to be a wise owl or an elegant horse or gazelle, but it’s probably a cat (curled up by the fire and looking piercingly at what’s going on around).
What fictional character would you want to be friends with in real life?
Cormoran Strike (Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling). I think he’s fascinating, hard but a softy at heart. He’s had such interesting experiences and I think he’d be full of anecdotes. I feel he’d keep me laughing as well.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Don’t give up; keep at it and believe in yourself. Read through your finished draft as though you are the reader, not the writer; if it doesn’t capture your attention throughout, then it won’t for anyone else. Make a great opening that grabs the reader’s attention and a great ending that makes them rave about your book. Create memorable characters and get to know them inside out: make a profile of them, what do they look like (very important), what are their little foibles, what are their likes/dislikes, what’s their history? And for heavens’ sake, do your research!
What book do you wish you had written?
Kate Atkinson’s Time After Time. Brilliant. What an intriguing concept: what if there were different ‘realities’ and history could repeat itself, but change for the better (hopefully). It’s a bit like a time-slip, I guess, but one that actually alters history – something we normally try not to do in time-slips – for the benefit of mankind.
Tell us 10 fun facts about yourself! 🙂
I love rhubarb and ginger gin and hate beer
I like rugby (watching!) and hate football
I love walking in the countryside and hate running (mainly because I have a spinal injury)
I love baking for family and friends: my current specialisms are ginger flapjacks (there seems to be a ginger theme going on here!) and almond macaroons, granary bread, and cauliflower & blue stilton cheese soup
I love crime novels, police procedurals and psychological thrillers, but I could never write them
I like gardening and growing my own vegetables and fruit
I’m really into healthy eating – all things fresh and homemade, not shop-bought, plastic wrapped and transport-miles
I actually have a PhD! In socio-linguistics, how men and women talk to each other. The research was fascinating!
I’m a qualified yoga teacher
I love clothes but hate shopping and changing rooms
And there we have it! That’s it for today. Let’s see what tomorrow has in store …
Anybody else, like me, love the historical novels of Philippa Gregory? History, intrigue, mystery, romance, drama, tragedy – it’s all there. I’ve learned much of my knowledge of the Tudor period from her work. Even though I know they’re novels and not non-fiction academic texts, I still trust that they are reasonably accurate albeit a fictionalised ‘take’ on characters of history. I do know that she has done her research, even though you may disagree with some of her interpretations!
All the authors I know do a lot of research before and during writing their novel, but it’s especially vital if you are writing about a historical period, or a location or a concept, because you have to get it right! There are, believe me, many readers waiting to jump on the slightest inaccuracy – and that’s understandable, and quite right. Readers want to see the novel, even if it’s a fictionalised account of the time or place, as an authority. When I read such a novel I want to feel I’m learning something correct and authentic, not something wrong.
For A Shape on the Air, I had a plot involving Dr Viv DuLac slipping back in time to 499 AD to solve a mystery, so I needed to update my research on the early medieval period and also to research concepts of time. Both of these are areas I love to read about, so it was no hardship. I’d studied medieval language, literature and history at university for my first degree and was fascinated by the Dark Ages (after the Roman rule ended and the early Anglo-Saxon settlements began). There wasn’t (and still isn’t) very much researched and written about the Dark Ages, which is where it got its name, not because it was violent and barbaric (which is what many people think) but because of the lack (darkness) of evidence in archaeology and documents. In some ways I had to use my deductive powers to assess what might have been retained from the earlier Roman period and what might be developing forward into the Anglo-Saxon period. More recently evidence is now appearing, such as from the ‘dig’ at Lyminge in Kent, England, where a fifth century feasting hall had been unearthed not long before I wrote my book. And there is a growing body of archaeological, geophysical and isotopic evidence to indicate how the people of the 5th and 6th centuries lived. But I had to keep up to date with new discoveries, all the time, keeping revisiting published research documents. So there was a fair amount of both evidence and informed imagination at work as I wrote A Shape on the Air.
My research into time-slip was also fascinating. I looked again at the scientific theories of quantum mechanics, which sounds a bit like something from Dr Who, the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, and worm-holes, all basically ideas about space-time portals through which you could slip from one layer of the universe into another, or from one historic period into another. Fascinating, especially for all those who like fantasy and the paranormal, and yet these are real scientific theories of the concept of time, albeit unlikely to be tested by experiment! Strangely enough, I seem to be hearing those theories quoted so much more these days in the media. So maybe something out there is catching on!
Time-slip sounds insane, and of course Viv (in the present day) wonders if she’s going mad when she thinks she’s had a dream but brings back a real golden key from 499 AD! And her ‘dream’ is so real she begins to wonder if she’s taken on the identity of Lady Vivianne, her counterpart in the Dark Ages. How do they fit together? Why are their lives becoming intertwined? Why do they need to reach out to each other across the centuries? Well, I’m afraid that you’ll need to read it and see …!