Eight Authors, One Table

A few weeks ago I heard about the Southam Book Festival, which was to be held on 30th September. It was not far away, so I made enquiries. It looked interesting and the cost of a table was very reasonable.

Now, I only have one book to sell – at the moment. Perhaps another writer might like to join me. I asked around, several people expressed an interest, perhaps two tables would be better.

Lift off came when I attended a meeting of the Cafe Writers. This is a group who meets at the Cafe in St Andrews Parish Church in Rugby, on alternate Fridays. All writers are welcome;  fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenplays. Experts, beginners or just anyone interested in books. We drink coffee, eat cake and talk about books.

Rugby Cafe Writers planning the trip to Southam

Everyone who had published a book was interested, we had a total of eight authors altogether – I booked two tables.

I turned up in plenty of time with my bag of books and two tablecloths. The festival started at 2pm, but I wanted to get there before the other writers. I soon realised that two tables would not be enough. I had thought to bring a tape measure in case of boundary disputes. We would only have one foot of table each. I stood there, shaking my head and the organisers offered me another table. We now had 18 inches each! Luckily the table cloths were big enough to cover all three. I measured off my territory and arranged my books.

To my complete amazement, everyone had arrived and was set up in time for the opening. All around us, there were other book sellers. Example of writing from a flash fiction competition were pinned on the wall and an temping array of cakes was set up at the counter opposite us.

Eight authors in search of readers.

The festival only lasted three hours but I think all of us sold some books – I sold two. It was great fun, if a little crowded. With such a range of genres, there was something for everyone. If a customer wasn’t interested in my Anglo-Saxon historical fiction, I could send them down the line to the Victorian period. There were thrillers and romance, fantasy and family sagas. 

Elsewhere in the building workshops and talks were going on, by authors (and dogs). There was a literary quiz sheet and a raffle. It also included a writing competition for children, which produced an international response.

 The event  was held at The Graham Adams Centre in Southam, a community centre run by a local charity. The proceeds of the event will go to the charity.  This was the first time this event has been held and I hope it continues in future years. I’m sure the Rugby Cafe Writers will be back next year.

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Review – A Gathering of Ghosts

One thing that the Historical Novel Society Conference got right this year was the Goody Bags.

Yes, there was no special branded bag to show off – someone said there had been a delay, so we had plain cotton bags, mine was purple. It contained the usual collection of advertising leaflets, specially printed first chapters/short stories, book marks and cards, a bottle of water and a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer.

It also contained a book; a full length 500+ page book and what is more, it was a book I wanted to read! A proof copy of Karen Maitland’s latest novel, A Gathering of Ghosts. When I got home, I ignored all the editing I planned to do and sat down to enjoy it. Since it is published today, 6th September, and I haven’t posted a review here for a while, I decided to write one. (The editing can wait a bit longer!)

Karen’s books are different from anything written by anyone else. They are usually set in a specific place, a long way away in time and place, away from the big picture of historical fiction, but at a local level they say everything about what is happening in the wider world.

A Gathering of Ghosts is set on Dartmoor, or Dertemora as the locals call it, a slightly different place with a character of its own. The year is 1316. Europe is in the grip of famine, caused by months of wet weather. Crops have failed, animals die and there is no avoiding the wind and rain.

The Priory of St Mary contains a group of women, Sisters of the Order of the Knights of St John. Under their Prioress, Johanne they are surviving better than most, from the donations to the Holy Well. But the local people consider the well, sacred to the old Goddess Brigid, belongs to them. On the moor, starving men mine for tin and no-one can stop them.

It is not long since the Knights Templar were destroyed. The Hospitallers benefitted from their fall, but are wary of suffering the same fate. Brother Nicholas arrives at the Priory. He knows that women cannot be trusted to run their own affairs; the sisters must be removed. At the same time a blind boy appears at the Priory. Is he a devil or an innocent requiring protection?

The scene is set for confrontation as women fight for freedom from the domination of men; the Sisters for their independence, the villagers for their sacred well and the old religion, and the starving women of the tinners from slavery.

And as the rain falls, the land itself stirs.

As I expected, it was a dark and fascinating book, full of history and legend – giant dogs roam the hills! There is magic, or is that just in the minds of those who expect to see it? There are extensive Historical Notes that explain many of the myths and stories the author has used.

One of the best books this author has written. I would have bought it myself, if I hadn’t been lucky enough to receive this free uncorrected proof copy.

Hardback £20.99

Ebook £9.49

Historical Novel Society Conference, 2018

Writers, in general, tend to be wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beasties and writers of historical fiction are no different. We hide, seeing nobody, ignoring even our friends and family, concentrating only on our research/writing/editing, only the occasional glance at Twitter for light relief and kittens.

However, collect 100+ historical fiction writers together in a Hotel and Golf Resort in Scotland and you can barely hear yourself think for the noise.

Yes it was the end of August 2018 and time for the Historical Novel Society Conference. I don’t know why HNS arranged all those Keynote speeches, and Break-out sessions, they could have just locked the doors and let us chat in peace.

Friday afternoon and attendees gathered, the main topic of conversation was where we were from and how far we had travelled. Naturally there were a lot of Scots, and Americans. The English seemed to be in short supply. For anyone who has never been to one of these events, the conversation then continues: Am I talking to another author, or someone else? What era? What stage – planning, writing, published? If so, how? Sometimes you find a “twin” and can end up in a deep and meaningful discussion in the type of mud and height of reeds in the fenland near Ely.

But what about the planned program? There were too many alternatives to go into detail, so I will just pick out what I remember.

Friday evening, after a buffet dinner,  there was supposed to be a talk by Robin Ellis, the original Poldark, but he was indisposed. Instead Graham Hunter, costume designer for Outlander and other films and TV, showed us some of the original clothes he had collected over the years, mostly survivals from the eighteenth century. He was informative and enthusiastic, but unfortunately let down by the microphone system – something that was to plague other speakers. The clothes were modelled by his assistant (Laurie?). Why don’t men look so smart nowadays?

This was followed by the Late Night Question Time Special, which was probably a bit too late for many.

Saturday was a beautiful day, what a pity we had to spend it indoors, but it was worth it. The first Keynote session was Alison Weir talking about Jane Seymour. Alison writes both fiction and non fiction and discussed the different constraints this puts on how you write. We heard a lot about the life of King Henry’s third wife and how difficult it can be to know what she felt about her position and what her intentions were. In non fiction we cannot say, in fiction we can take an educated guess. Alison also told us about a new theory about what caused the death of Jane. Fascinating.

Ben Kane talking about research, I think.

There was a pause for refreshments and for the room to be rearranged and it was on to the first Break-out Session. I had chosen Ben Kane on “Clash of Empires Rome v Greece.” Ben has written many acclaimed books on the Romans, but has decided on a change to the Greeks. He gave a brief run down on the world a generation after Alexander the Great, after the Roman army had been almost  totally destroyed at Cannae. Fighting broke out in Macedonia where Phillip V was surrounded by enemies. Rome intervened around 200 BC. What happened is told in Ben’s latest book, Clash of Empires, which of course I had to buy. An interesting talk about a little known period of history.

The next session was about using Ingram Spark, less exciting, but useful if I decide to  self publish my next book. This was followed by a buffet Lunch and then a session on writing Children’s Historical Fiction. I only caught the beginning and end of this as I had a pitch meeting booked. I don’t know why I put myself through it, but at least I wasn’t as nervous as last time, which I suppose is progress. Finding out about Children’s Historical Fiction would have been more helpful.

Later in the afternoon were more Plenary Sessions: The HNS Awards and reading of extracts from the winning entries, then “From Book to Radio/Screen. Paul Welsh and Trevor Royle discussed the differing methods of translating a book for transmission in other media. Both routes need much changes to the source material – in radio, how to suggest the things that cannot be seen, with film the difficulty is to capture the thoughts of the characters by the way they react to the world around them. Something to think about when writing.

We were then allowed a break. I went and lay on my bed for half an hour, before dressing for the Gala Dinner and Ceilidh.

As we gathered in the bar, we could hear a piper. He marched up and down outside (it was a lovely evening) and then he piped us into dinner.

I spoke earlier about the constant talk. As we waited for our food, we hardly noticed how long it took, although I heard some people gave up. Dinner was at 7.00 pm and it was after 8.00 before our starters arrived, perhaps too long, although it was very nice when it finally arrived.

The ceilidh, when it finally arrived was worth waiting for. By the number of people who asked how to pronounce the word, I realised that many participants had no idea what was to happen – some, I think were still mystified by the end. I will draw a veil over the proceedings, except to say that anyone who watched the dancing of the Gay Gordons will never forget it – those who took part probably still have the bruises – hilarious chaos.

On Sunday morning, people were already starting to leave – trains to catch etc. They probably don’t want to know, but they missed the best talk of the conference: the keynote speech by Sarah Dunant. This was slightly late in starting, I’m not sure why – had someone overslept? It was worth the wait though. Sarah writes about women’s lives in the Italian Renaissance, but today she was talking about the Borgias. Everyone knows about the Borgias – the pope and his family – the corruption, the poison, the incest. We had fun looking at some of the ways they have been portrayed in books and films, but was that the truth? Apparently not. Alexander VI was certainly not the most well behaved of renaissance popes, but he was by no means the worst. He was vilified because he was foreign, the family was Spanish. His daughter, Lucrezia gained a bad reputation from which, as can happen to a woman, she was unable to escape. The Fake News started almost immediately, never to let up. Until now, when Sarah Dunant has produced a possibly more accurate view of this famous family.

Sarah Dunant, Pope Alexander VI and someone else.

Something struck me when I came to write this post. I only bought two books at this conference. Fairly restrained for me, but I didn’t have much room in my luggage! They were books by the most informative and entertaining speakers, Sarah Dunant and Ben Kane. Is there any significance in this? Does being an engaging speaker help to sell your books. Something to think about!

The rest of the morning passed in a rush. The next session I attended was that of Margaret Skea on Stealing Stories, using real places and people and using them as a basis for your fiction. She explained how she used one castle she knew for the outside of her fictional version and a different one for the inside. She tried to use a real person as her main character, but found it too constricting, finally letting a minor imaginary character to tell the story.

At this point I would like to thank Margaret for all her work in organising the conference. She was continually on the move, solving problems, checking people were in the right place and allways with a smile on her face.

Galloping swiftly on to the final Break-out session: The Horse, a workshop with Jane Harlond on how to avoid making mistakes while using horses in our books. She even got us sitting backwards on our chairs to demonstrate the different stirrup positions when using a sword or throwing a lance. I wish we had had more time, but I learned a lot. I will certainly watch Poldark riding his horse along the cliffs in a new light!

Then it was time for the Historical Fiction Challenge, a series of questions to the panel and the audience. Despite the easy questions fed to the panel, the final winners were the audience. Congratulations all round. Then the conference was wrapped up, with an advert for the next, in USA in June 2019. I think I’ll wait for the next British event – I should have got my voice back by then!

My book on display (plus a few postcards I happened to drop nearby!)

I first went to a HNS conference two years ago. At the time I was still writing my first book. This time, that book is published  and the next is nearly finished. I enquired before the conference about selling my book there, but was informed that, due to lack of space, only speakers and helpers were allowed on the book stall – a very reasonable decision. However one of the speakers was Jeremy Thompson, Managing Director of Troubador Publishing Ltd and The Book Guild Ltd. He brought along a display for Matador Books and a few historical fiction books they have published. It included my book, Bright Sword, so although it wasn’t for sale, it was visible. Thank you Jeremy.

It was an amazing few days and wonderful to meet up with old friends and Twitter friends and to make new friends. See you all in 2020.

If you want to see more pictures taken at the Conference see the HNS website

And Finally, a picture to prove that I am unable to go to a HNS Conference and not get my hands on a sword!

 

Guest Post – The Coming of the Saxons

Today I present another Guest Post. What a good way to avoid having to think up something new to write!

Today I welcome Mary Anne Yarde, a fellow Historical Fiction writer, although of a slightly earlier period, the sixth century. Her International Bestselling series – The Du Lac Chronicles, lie in that period generally known as Arthurian, although the books are set a generation later, after the fall of King Arthur. The story of the fight against the Saxon Invaders

I was surprised Mary Anne wanted to be associated with such an Anglo-Saxon centric blog, as I have read the first book in the series and I got the impression that the Saxons were the antagonists. She assures me that some very cool Saxon characters appear in the later books – more books for my TBR list.

Although we both write about the Anglo-Saxon world, my Byrhtnoth lives in the tenth century, four hundred years later and a very different world. I have asked Mary Anne to tell us about the early period, and the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons on our shores.

Welcome Mary Anne.

Mary Anne Yarde

The Coming of the Saxons…

In the year AD 425 Vortigern became the High King of Southern Britain — or so said the 6th Century British monk, Gildas. Vortigern’s reign of 30 years was not, however, without conflict. There was the constant threat of invasion from the Irish on the western seaboard. The Picts were invading from the north, and in the eastern seaboard, the Saxons were trying to push into Vortigern’s realm. It was a war on all fronts. It was a war he could not possibly win.

Vortigern turned to his Roman friends for help. But instead of military assistance, Flavius Aetius, a Roman general, sent Bishop Germanus of Auxerre and Bishop Severus of Trier, to Vortigern’s kingdom to find out what was going on and report back to him. However, Germanus was more concerned about finding the Pelagian heretics than the threat that Vortigern spoke of. Germanus and Severus took their leave, having done very little. Vortigern realised he would not receive any military aid from Rome. If he wanted to save his kingdom, then he was going to have to think of something else.

Vortigern did not have many choices open to him. If the Roman Empire would not come to his aid, then he would have to find someone who would. He looked to the land of the Jutes. Vortigern was not the first, and he was certainly not the last to employ mercenaries to fight for his cause.  He heard talk of two warrior brothers, Hengist and Horsa. These brothers had a fine army. It was these men that Vortigern struck a deal with. It is worth noting that although Hengist and Horsa were Jutes, they shared the same Germanic language (taking into account the different regional dialects), the same religious philosophies, and the same culture as the Saxons who were causing such a problem for Vortigern in the east.

In return for their services, Vortigern gave the brothers land in the Isle of Thanet, Kent. The mercenaries brought over their families, and for a while, things seemed to work well for all. The brothers and their men kept in check their Germanic kinfolk along the east coast. They were also a good match for the Picts in the north. They also help to curb the Irish ambitions as well. 

Hengist and Horsa arriving in Britain, by Richard Rowlands (1605)

Thanks to Hengist and Horsa, the threat to Vortigern’s kingdom, although still present, was, for now, kept in check. It was then that Hengist and Horsa decided that they were not being paid enough. They were risking their lives for Vortigern. They deserved more. Much more. So they took their demands to Vortigern, along with a promise… If Vortigern did not meet their demands, then they would take his kingdom as payment. It was only fair.

Vortigern found himself in a very difficult position. He had invited these mercenaries into his kingdom. In fact, he had kept on inviting them. And now, there were an awful lot of them. Too many. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles states that:

“…the Saxons multiplied their numbers, and the British could not feed them.”

Vortigern raised taxes, in a bid to pay his mercenary army. But he could not raise sufficient funds. His people simply did not have the money, and they resented having to pay tax when these foreign settlers, Vortigern had invited over, did not have to pay at all. By the year AD 430 Vortigern faced the threat of civil war.  This unrest was led by a man, who the Welsh called, Emrys, and who others called Ambrosius Aurelianus. Vortigern did not know what to do. So he did what he always did. He recruited even more mercenaries. This decision would cost him his throne.

“Once lit, it did not die down. When it had wasted town and country in that area, it burnt up almost the whole surface of the island, until its red and savage tongue licked the western seas..”
On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain — Gildas

The Celts, although their loyalty to their High King had been stretched to the limit, rose up against these foreign aggressors. Vortigern was mortally wounded while leading a campaign to drive the Jutes back to the Isle of Thanet. With Vortigern’s death, the native Celts look to Ambrosius. In the year AD 473, Hengist and his son, Aesc, fought the Celts in Kent and were victorious. In AD 488, Aesc became King of Kent. As for Ambrosius… Nothing more is said of him.

Kent became a secure beachhead for Germanic invasions and eventually the conquest of Britain.

 

Bibliography:

(Author Unknown) — The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (J. M. Dent, New edition, 1972)
Bede — Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2012)
Berresford Elllis, Peter — Celt and Saxon (The struggle for Britain AD 410-937) (Constable and Company Ltd , 1994)
Geoffrey of Monmouth — The History of the Kings of Britain (Penguin Books Ltd, 1966)
Gildas — On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain (Serenity Publishers, LLC, 2009)
Nennius — The History of the Britons (Dodo Press, July 2007)
Pryor, Francis — Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons (HarperCollins Publisher, 2005)
Wood, Michael — In Search of the Dark Ages (BBC Books, 2005)
Wood, Michael — In Search of England (Penguin Books, 1999)

 

… and four hundred years later Byrhtnoth was killed, attempting to prevent the conquest of Britain (by then known as Englalond) by the Danes – some things never change!

Thank you, Mary Anne, for an interesting article.

If you want to find out more about the lives of the Du Lac family in these turbulent times, Book 4 of The Du Lac Chronicles, The Du Lac Prophecy is published today 28th August 2018.

Two Prophesies. Two Noble Households. One Throne.

Distrust and greed threaten to destroy the House of du Lac. Mordred Pendragon strengthens his hold on Brittany and the surrounding kingdoms while Alan, Mordred’s cousin, embarks on a desperate quest to find Arthur’s lost knights. Without the knights and the relics they hold in trust, they cannot defeat Arthur’s only son – but finding the knights is only half of the battle. Convincing them to fight on the side of the Du Lac’s, their sworn enemy, will not be easy.

If Alden, King of Cerniw, cannot bring unity there will be no need for Arthur’s knights. With Budic threatening to invade Alden’s Kingdom, Merton putting love before duty, and Garren disappearing to goodness knows where, what hope does Alden have? If Alden cannot get his House in order, Mordred will destroy them all.

You can find the book at:
Amazon US
https://www.amazon.com/Du-Lac-Prophecy-Book-Chronicles-ebook/dp/B07GDS3HPJ

Amazon UK
https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07GDS3HPJ/

Amazon CA
https://www.amazon.ca/Du-Lac-Prophecy-Book-Chronicles-ebook/dp/B07GDS3HPJ/

And why not visit Mary Anne’s informative Website/Blog: : https://maryanneyarde.blogspot.com/

Finally, by the time you read this, the Historical Novel Society Conference in Scotland will be over. I hope to post a report of what happened there in the near future.

Guest Post – The Rise and Rise of Crime and Thriller Fiction

Today I host my first guest post.

I first met Sally Jenkins when we discovered both our books were to be published by The Book Guild, on the same day, January 28th 2018. We are not in competition, because our books are so different, she writes psychological thrillers and I write historical fiction.

Do these very different genres attract the same readers or do they remain completely separate? Today we introduce our blog readers to something different.

Welcome Sally:

Author Sally Jenkins

In 2017 18.7 million crime and thriller books were sold. This was an increase of 19 per cent over the previous two years. Even without the hard proof of these figures the popularity of dark fiction is obvious. Think about all those books with ‘Girl’ in the title, the influx of ‘noir’ TV box sets from Scandinavia and the emergence of a brand new fiction sub-genre, ‘grip lit’.  Grip lit is a blend of women’s fiction and psychological thriller, usually written by women and about women. And women readers account for just over half of all crime and thriller sales – so we do like to be scared!

Our fascination with dark fiction can be likened to the attraction of a roller coaster. In the former, we clutch the pages, not daring to turn out the bedside light in case something goes bump in the night. On the latter we scream and shriek with every rise and fall of the track. In both cases, as soon as the experience is finished we want to do it all over again! Val McDermid is the queen of crime thriller writers and she says, “A crime-thriller gives you an adrenalin rush. It’s exciting, suspense-laden … But you know it’s fiction and that the protagonist is going to make it out okay in the end. We live in a society increasingly fragmented and alienated. People … find reassurance in crime-thrillers because they know that in the end the world will be put right.”

Do the authors of all these crime and thriller novels need evil, twisted personalities in order to generate the material for their novels? Being a writer of psychological thrillers myself, I plead that we are nice people! As with all authors we pluck our ideas from what we see in the world around us and then embellish, sharpen and polish them from our own unique perspective on the world. One of the continuing themes or perspectives in my own novels is how past happenings rarely stay in the past. They can explode into our present day lives without warning and turn everything upside down. In Bedsit Three the evil comes from Ignatius, who was brought up by a domineering mother. The effect of this on his behaviour is seen as the novel progresses. The other characters in the book are also influenced by their early years but they work for a more positive outcome, begging the question: nature or nurture?

When I started to write my second novel, The Promise, my mind again darted backwards and forwards in time. The plot which emerged centres around a promise made in prison thirty years ago. This promise must now be kept by the next generation and leads to a blackmail attempt …

I’m certain the popularity of crime and thriller fiction will continue to grow. Modern day life is full of uncertainty, upheaval and unsolved crime. Books where good eventually conquers evil (after giving the reader a scary ride!) get my vote every time.

Visit Sally’s website, follow her on Twitter or view her books on Amazon.

Publication – six months on

Was it only six months since my first book, Bright Sword, was published? It must have been, I remember the freezing cold of my book launch, when my Anglo-Saxon warriors administered mead to the handful of customers who braved the icy streets. Now we are in the midst of a heat wave and thunderstorms.

For all this time friends have asked, “How is it selling?” and I reply “I haven’t the faintest idea.” The only indication is the graph on my Amazon Author Central page – a jagged line for the first couple of months then a general decline. There are occasional upward turns, there has been on the last few days. Why? I checked the price and discovered Amazon have reduced the price, again.

The book is now £3.72, cheaper than the e-book at £3.99. Why does nobody tell me these things so I can pass on the news? Should I be checking the price every day? There’s probably something I can set up that will tell me.

Anyway, I now know exactly how many books I have sold – at least up to the end of June. Yesterday I received my first Royalty Statement from my publisher (I had to rescue the e-mail from my spam folder – good job I check it occasionally) They sent me money! Not a fortune but it proves that someone has bought my book. Several someones and not all of them family and friends! The bad news, for me, is that there are still plenty of copies in stock. But it’s good news for anyone thinking of buying a copy, especially at (did I mention the price?) only £3.72 – see here.

What have I learnt over these six months? The first thing is that I am not very good at selling myself. I haven’t even managed to get my book into my local library, despite giving them a free copy. Did they not think it good enough or is it languishing forgotten on a shelf somewhere?

I already knew this. I am the sort of person who has a tendency to say “I’ve written a book, it’s not bad, but it could be better. Would you like to read it? That’s all right, it’s probably not your cup of tea.” I must be more assertive. “Buy my book or I’ll kidnap your husband/children/cat and torture them until you read it and post a five-star review.” A bit over the top? Perhaps. I must try to find a happy medium – slightly more posts on twitter/facebook?

On the other hand, I have been writing, rewriting and editing book two. Bright Axe is now finished. It will go back to the editor soon – more about that another time. Then I’ll have to think about publication. Do I go back to the publisher of Bright Sword? Have I sold enough copies of the first book? If they offer me the same (partnership) deal should I accept? Would I be better off with straight self-publishing? It would mean more work, but more control about what happens. Do I put more effort into Bright Sword or concentrate on publishing Bright Axe?

So many decisions to make.

Recently I was thinking about the future:

About book two.

About when to return to the first draft of book three.

About plans for book four and whether the story will finish there.

I had a sudden revelation. If I finish the Byrhtnoth Chronicles with book four – what will I write next?

It was that, not the receipt of a royalty payment or anything else, that stopped me in my tracks.

I am no longer someone who has had a go at writing a book. I am a writer – and I’m not sure I can stop.

With Aethelflaed in Tamworth

I have never been to Tamworth before. I don’t know why, it’s only about 30 miles away, straight up Watling Street. Perhaps because I’ve never had a reason to go. This weekend, there was a very good reason, it was Aethelfest. This was a celebration of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, who died in the town 1100 years ago, in 918.

I’m not sure why a town would celebrate the death of a famous visitor – not exactly good publicity. Although it can happen (Maldon, 991?).

So who was Aethelflaed? For anyone who has missed all the publicity, she was the daughter (and eldest child) of Alfred the Great and like him, she fought the Danes, driving them out of Mercia. She was not a Queen, because her husband, Aethelred (no, not that one!) was not a King. Who he was is a mystery and one of the subjects that was covered at the event, organised by Tamworth Literary Festival – Aethelflaed and Women’s Worlds: Reconstructing Early Women’s Voices.

Statue of Aethelflaed and the young King Athelstan by Tamworth Castle

I had seen this advertised some time before and had been attracted by the fact that two very good authors were taking part, both of whom have written about “my” period. Since it was held only a few days after my birthday, I knew I had to go.

I allowed plenty of time for the journey, and arrived an hour early, finding a car park right next to the venue. Plenty of time to have a look round the town. There were plenty of boards so I learned something of the history of the town and ended up at the castle. unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit but wandered round the Castle Grounds where there was an Anglo-Saxon encampment and the display of a colourful Aetheflaed mosaic.

Aethelfest Mosaic

Entrance to Tamworth Castle and floral Anglo-Saxon warrior

The Castle was Norman but Tamworth was important long before, as the capital of Mercia, home of King Penda and King Offa. It was sacked by the Danes in 874 and rebuilt  and fortified by Aethelflaed in 913. I would have liked to have spent more time exploring but I had to get back for the main attraction.

After an introduction by Dr Sara Read, the speaker was Annie Whitehead. Annie has written several books, one, “Alvar the Kingmaker”, actually includes a character I have written about – although from a vastly different viewpoint. Today she was talking about Aethelflaed, whose life she has written about in “To be a Queen”. She told us about Aethelflaed and how little information there is actually is about her. Was it because she was a successful woman in a man’s would, or was it for political reasons? The Kings of Wessex were eager to take over Mercia and when Aethelflaed died, leaving only a daughter to succeed her, she was quickly “rescued” by Aethflaed’s brother, King Edward and never seen again.

Annie has cleverly taken what is known and woven it into a plausible story, interpreting the facts to fit what might be what happened. I recommend her latest book “Cometh the Hour” about King Penda, an interesting view of a king who is usually the antagonist in other books set in this earlier, 7th century, period. It provides an explanation of the burial of the Staffordshire Hoard. Annie also has a non-fiction book coming out in September, “Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom“. I look forward to reading it.

The second speaker was treading on dangerous ground. Marianne Whiting is a Viking – or perhaps I should say a writer about Vikings. Born in Sweden, she was captured by a local while on a course at Birmingham University and has been held hostage ever since. She explained how the Vikings were not (just) the rapists and pillagers we know and love, but traders, merchants and innocent settlers. She described the difficulties of writing about writing in a time when beliefs and customs were very different from today. Should she leave out descriptions of animal sacrifice that might shock the modern reader? She doesn’t and her books, the Shieldmaiden Viking Trilogy are all the better for it. We are immersed in ordinary farming life of settlers in the English Lake District. Sigrid Kveldulfsdaughter is a shieldmaiden. She fights for her land, her family and her honour. Politics intervene, her uncle is Eirik Haraldson (Bloodaxe) sometime King of Jorvik over the period of the books. I had read the first two, “Shieldmaiden” and “To Save a Kingdom” and was particularly interested to buy the third “Honour is All” as it deals with the same period, and some of the same characters, that I am struggling with. I have read and finished it (which is why I didn’t write this blog yesterday) and it was everything I wished for, with a wonderful ending.

The third and final speaker was Dr Jennifer Evans talking about medical treatment of medieval women.  Her speciality is the Early Modern Period but she spoke to us about a little known woman called Trotula said to have been the first female professor of medicine in eleventh- or twelfth-century Salerno, who wrote a textbook on women’s medicine. This was a very amusing talk about some of the “cures” for various ailments, mostly of women but sometimes men. The main method of administration was by fumigation, which meant that the doctor didn’t need to look at or touch the woman at all.

The speakers were followed by questions and then a buffet lunch. There was plenty of time to chat and buy books.

Viking and Saxon in harmony. Marianne Whiting and Annie Whitehead signing books.

It was an entertaining and educational  event. I wish I had made more of an effort to investigate more of the whole Aethelfest experience, but it was just too hot. I retired to my air conditioned car and returned home, to read my books in the garden. Thanks to the authors for giving up their time and the Tamworth Literary Festival for organising it and of course Tamworth Borough Council for organising Aethelfest