Mastodon The Writing Desk: November 2019

27 November 2019

Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance, by Stephen Spinks

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Edward II is one of the most controversial kings of English history. On numerous occasions he brought England to the brink of civil war. Author Stephen Spinks argues that Edward and the later murdered Piers Gaveston were lovers, not merely ‘brothers-in-arms’. 

Influenced by successive royal favourites and with a desire for personal vengeance, his rule became highly polarised and unstable. His own wife took a lover and invaded his kingdom resulting in his forced abdication; the first in British history. 

Edward’s prevailing legacy remains the warning that all kings can fall from power.And yet … war, debt and baronial oppression before 1307 ensured that Edward II inherited a toxic legacy that any successor would have found almost impossible to wrestle with. 

Stephen Spinks explores that legacy using contemporary and later sources. By focusing on Edward’s early years as much as on his reign, and exploring the conflicting influences of those around him, Stephen shows the human side of this tale against a backdrop of political intrigues and betrayals. He peels back the layers to reveal the man who wore the crown. 

Edward’s belief in his unchallengable right to rule, increasingly at odds with those at his court, and his undeniable thirst for revenge, creates a fourteenth-century tragedy on a grand scale.

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About the Author

Stephen Spinks wrote his dissertation on Edward II while studying at King's College, London. He works for the National Trust and manages three Medieval heritage sites with 900 volunteers and 150 staff.  He has given many interviews on radio and in his capacity at the National Trust, to 'BBC's Escape to the Country' and the 'Antiques Road Show'. He has been studying the primary sources (and locations) for this book over the past 15 years. Find out more at Stephen's website and follow him on Twitter @SpinksStephen

25 November 2019

Guest Interview with C.J. Adrien, Author of The Lords of the Wind (The Saga of Hasting the Avenger Book 1)

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Orphaned as a child by a blood-feud, and sold as a slave to an exiled chieftain in Ireland, the boy Hasting had little hope of surviving to adulthood. The gods had other plans. A ship arrived at his master's longphort carrying a man who would alter the course of his destiny, and take him under his wing to teach him the ways of the Vikings.

I'm pleased to welcome author C.J. Adrien  to The Writing Desk

Tell us about your latest book

My latest novels is a first in series about the life of the Viking Hasting. Hasting is one of the earliest verified historical figures of the Vikings Age, whose career began shortly after the period of semi-legendary figures (such as Ragnar Lothbrok). Highly active in the Loire River valley and Brittany regions of France, Hasting is not often evoked in historical fiction novels that focus on England and Ireland (as is generally the case in the Anglophone world).

It's a shame he isn't because his life embodied the ideals of what it was to be a Viking. If anyone could have written a book on what it was to be a Viking, Hasting would have been the man to do it; except the Vikings didn't write! In any case, Hasting features prominently in all the research I've done on the topic of the Vikings in Brittany, and it has always been my goal to write the story of his life in a compelling way.

What is your preferred writing routine?

I generally only write when I am in the mood, which you won't hear from many other authors. I am fortunate in that I am often in the mood to write, and so I never have to force myself. There are certain times when I am more inspired than others, and when that happens I am essentially consumed by my focus on my work. When it comes to planning outlines, scenes, and other nitty-gritty details, the place where I find the most inspiration is at the gym. Something about turning on epic tunes and pumping iron really gets my inspiration going.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

It takes time to find your voice in your writing. Keep writing, and keep practicing. Most importantly, don't be afraid to put your writing out there for others to pick apart. Don't take criticism personally, use it to improve. The first novel I wrote was awful, and lots of people told me so. Rather than feel discourage and stop writing, I took a hard look at my strengths and weaknesses, and I worked to improve. I strive to always improve, and that's the attitude I credit with taking me to the next level year after year. Lastly, patience is key. No author ever became good at writing by simply picking up a pen and writing. It takes years of dedication and practice, and that work never ends.

What have you found to be the best way to raise awareness of your books?

My blog started me on the path to raising awareness. I took the time to write dozens of articles about my research, built up a loyal online following, and after a few years I ended up being one of the top Viking history blogs on the internet. My articles and novels earned me an invitation to be a speaker at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds. After that, once my name started to make the rounds in my niche, everything came together. The launch of my third and most recent novel was practically effortless compared with my first two novels, and that's because of all the hard work I put into building up my reputation online over the better part of a decade.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

After the sack of Seville in the 840s, the Muslims of Iberia sent an emissary named al-Ghazal north to find out who the Vikings were and why they had wanted to attack Spain. While the account of al-Ghazal is intriguing after he arrived at the court of Throgisl in Ireland, his early testimony about the voyage revealed something completely unexpected. He described a series of islands off the coast of what is today France, and tells of a Viking village with a king who welcomed them and helped to repair their ships. Historians have struggled to prove the islands of Aquitaine were ever permanently settled by Vikings, and here we have a firsthand account that this was in fact the case.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

The "Meeting at Redon" was particularly difficult. Every character in the room has a different motive and goal, and so it was a nightmare to put together a meeting where every participant wanted to pull the conversation in a different direction. It was also hard to write the scene in an entertaining way, and I struggled to put it together in a way that wouldn't lose readers in the nitty-gritty of the politics of the day.

What are you planning to write next?

I am currently writing the second installment of Hasting's life, which will be released on July 4, 2020. Wish me luck!

C.J. Adrien 
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About the Author

C.J. Adrien is a French-American author of Viking historical fiction with a passion for Viking history. His Kindred of the Sea series was inspired by research conducted in preparation for a doctoral program in early medieval history as well as his admiration for historical fiction writers such as Bernard Cornwell and Ken Follett. C.J. Adrien’s novels and expertise have earned him invitations to speak at several international events, including the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds. For more information, please visit C.J. Adrien's website and blog. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.


During the Blog Tour, we are giving away a copy of The Lords of the Wind! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules – Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on December 13th. You must be 18 or older to enter. – Paperback giveaway is open to US residents only. – Only one entry per household.

All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud will be decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion. – The winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen. The Lords of the Wind

20 November 2019

Special Guest Interview with Nancy Bilyeau, Author of The Blue

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

In eighteenth century London, porcelain is the most seductive of commodities; fortunes are made and lost upon it. Kings do battle with knights and knaves for possession of the finest pieces and the secrets of their manufacture.

I'm pleased to welcome best-selling historical fiction author Nancy Bilyeau to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book

Sèvres Porcelain Potpourri Vase
I followed up my Tudor trilogy with a stand-alone novel set in the eighteenth century. I jumped to another time period with The Blue. It’s a spy story and an art story: a young Huguenot woman who longs to be a serious artist gets caught up in a conspiracy to steal the formula for the most beautiful shade of blue ever created from an English porcelain factory in 1758, the middle of the Seven Years War. I brought some of my family history to this novel, as I am descended from a Huguenot settler who came to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in 1665 and my father was a watercolor artist.

What is your preferred writing routine?

I’d love to have a routine—and even more so, a beautiful writing room or even a nook! I have a full time job at a nonprofit news center and freelance nonfiction assignments, and a family, so I write my books, and The Blue in particular, at the kitchen table early in the morning before anyone is awake, or in bed on the weekends. Any time I could snatch for research or writing or revising.

What advice do you have for new writers?

Get eyes on your work and listen to what your beta readers or critique partners say. What we think is coming across with clarity to a reader might not be—that’s where your team can help you. It’s really important not to submit fiction or publish before something is ready. I fight that impulse myself, as I am not a patient, deliberate person. But letting something sit overnight to get a fresh read in the morning is one of my tricks.

What have you found to be the best way to raise awareness of your books?

My books are “traditionally published,” but the classic path to success of bookstore appearances and touring and speaking, it doesn’t work today. Most publicists would actually agree with that too. Nor does sending a huge number of ARCs to newspaper and magazine reviewers to build up awareness, because, sadly, print media is spiraling out of existence. The reality is everyone is online and authors need to be where readers are. I write a lot of nonfiction on history and I interact with people on twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads. I like social media, so to me it isn’t a chore or a necessary evil. I have to force myself off it!

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

That the luxury-obsessed elites of the 1750s were quite similar to that group of people today. Some aristocrats and merchants went bankrupt collecting porcelain, it became a sort of madness, as the porcelain itself became ever more elaborate and fantastical. During this period, Sevres Porcelain, near Versailles, produced things like a potpourri vase in the shape of a ship, gold enamel, painted deep blue, a lot of detail, including a detailed scene painted on the side of sailors on a wharf packing fish! If when you hear “porcelain,” you think cups and plates, that’s not what this world was about in the mid 18th century. It was about creating these delicate fantasies with tantalizing glimpses of real life.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

In The Blue, it was an early chapter, when Genevieve, my main character, is having dinner in her Spitalfields house with her grandfather—and with a guest, Sir Gabriel Courtenay, who is the antagonist of the plot but also there’s an attraction there between them. Here he is trying to recruit her for a spy mission but doing so with a lot of subtlety. Several levels needed to be in the chapter, but also a lot of information is being revealed and crucial decisions made. Yet they are on the surface of it, just sitting and eating and talking. So it was a challenge to make the scene interesting and tense. I had to revise a lot.

What are you planning to write next?

I’ve written a fifth novel, Dreamland, published January 16, 2020 by Endeavour Quill. For the first time, I’m setting a novel in my own city and it’s just past the turn of the century. A rebellious heiress gets dragged to the Oriental Hotel, a luxury hotel on the Atlantic Ocean (one that existed) not too far from Coney Island, “America’s Playground.” She meets an immigrant artist, and that leads to all sorts of fireworks, literal and figurative. I just spotted the Publishers Weekly review of the novel, and it describes the period in Dreamland as “the end of the Gilded Age.” That’s it for sure.

Nancy Bilyeau

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About the Author

Nancy Bilyeau studied History at the University of Michigan and has worked on the staffs of "InStyle," "Good Housekeeping," and "Rolling Stone." She is currently the deputy editor of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the Research Foundation of CUNY and a regular contributor to "Town & Country" and "The Vintage News." Nancy's mind is always in past centuries but she currently lives with her husband and two children in New York City. Find out more at Nancy's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @Tudorscribe

18 November 2019

Guest Post by Bart Casey, Author of The Vavasour Macbeth

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Buried Shakespearean treasure from an ancestor’s tomb brings a disillusioned BBC reporter home to solve her father’s murder and restart her life with the man who has always loved her.

Thanks to Tony Riches for inviting me to write a guest post on The Writing Desk about my new novel The Vavasour Macbeth.  I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce you to some of the very real Tudor tales written into the book.

As I hope you’ll soon discover for yourselves, the story is told in the form of a 20th century thriller after scores of old manuscripts are found in a flooded Elizabethan tomb.  But underpinning the modern-day action are details drawn from three lines of historical research that I have been exploring for decades: first, investigations into the question of who actually wrote Shakespeare; secondly, the remarkable biographies of Tudors Anne Vavasour and Sir Henry Lee; and finally some little-known quirks about Shakespeare’s play-writing and his masterpiece Macbeth.

Shakespeare Authorship 

It was in graduate school that I read Sir Edmund Chambers’ magisterial two-volume biography called William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems.  Quite frankly, I was shocked at how few facts and how many problems remain about the world’s most famous writer.

It turned out I was not alone, and very shortly I found myself in that crazy corner of English literature studies called “the Shakespeare Authorship Question,” which is filled with conspiracy theories, name calling and loud shouting.  I was astonished at how many people could not believe “the Stratford man” wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare.  I was even more surprised that worthies such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Sigmund Freud were among them.

Since the leading alt-candidate Shakespeare appeared to be Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, I plunged into serious study of his life and literary remains (because there are many examples of works undoubtedly written by him).  I concluded that he was just not up to Shakespeare’s mark – not even close.  But it was while reading about Oxford that I stumbled onto the sad tale of his fling with a teenaged maid of honor named Anne Vavasour.  And that began the second line of research incorporated into The Vavasour Macbeth.

Anne Vavasour and Sir Henry Lee

Anne Vavasour

Anne’s family groomed her from childhood to be a companion to the Queen.  True to plan, she arrived at court at the age of sixteen as a Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber.  She was a lively breath of fresh air for the courtiers hanging around awaiting the Queen’s pleasure.  Unfortunately, the Earl of Oxford – then in his thirties  -- was estranged from his wife at the time and on the prowl for excitement.  So perhaps it wasn’t much of a surprise that young Anne was ensnared.  She then became the scandal of the season when she gave birth to a bouncing baby boy in the maidens’ chamber at court only about 15 months after she had arrived.

Elizabeth was furious and sent both Anne and Oxford to the Tower for a time.  Oxford was banned from court for two years and never recovered his favorable position, while Anne seemed doomed to a miserably reduced life as an unwed mother – until Sir Henry Lee came to her rescue a few years later.

Sir Henry was in Elizabeth’s innermost circle.  He was immensely wealthy and of impeccable character.  He was also thirty years older than Anne.  He had been at court since he inherited his family lands and fortune at the age of fourteen.  That’s when he had been taken from his family into the direct service of King Henry VIII in the royal household.  In fact, there was a rumor that Sir Henry was the king’s illegitimate son.  Indeed, that relationship may explain why Sir Henry always remained in the closest circle of courtiers serving King Henry VIII and each of his children -- Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth – during difficult times when many lost their footing.

Then in 1590, after decades of faithful service, Sir Henry decided to retire as Queen Elizabeth’s Personal Champion at the joust.  His wife and three children were all dead, and he was facing lonely years ahead.  That’s when he invited Anne (and her son by Oxford) to join him as his de facto wife.  Then for the next twenty years, they divided their time between his fifteen-room apartment overlooking the Thames in London and his many estates in the country.  Sir Henry was about 57 and Anne about 27 years old.  And they lived happily in sin together, as confirmed by many reports, stories, and letters documented today in the British State Papers and National Archives. Their unusual living arrangements even seemed to have the tacit approval of Elizabeth, especially after her well-documented visit to Sir Henry’s Ditchley estate during the Progress of 1592.  That was when the Queen and her court all were drafted into acting out a two-day drama on the nature of love which Sir Henry paid to have written by a dream team of poets and dramatists.  And this September event would have coincided exactly with the time when young Shakespeare and his writing colleagues were desperate for writing work while the theatres were closed by plague in the city.

Finally, when Sir Henry died approaching age 80, he left his money and the use of his estates to Anne for a period of sixty years or until her death, whichever came first.  She would have been about 47 at the time of this bequest, and lived out the rest of her long life as one of the richest women in England, completing her highly unlikely recovery from youthful ruin.  In The Vavasour Macbeth, those ancient manuscripts are found in Anne and Sir Henry’s shared tomb.

Shakespeare’s play-writing and Macbeth

My own conclusion about Shakespeare’s plays is that they were highly collaborative creations.  I have no doubt the Stratford man himself wrote the great speeches and soliloquies, and also shaped the stories and their pacing.  But I don’t think he wrote every word and crossed every “t” in the versions remaining today -- just as Steven Spielberg did not write all of the screenplays of his films.  And specific performances would have been adapted for their audiences and time allowed.

In The Vavasour Macbeth I do describe many of the forensic forays into the search for Shakespeare’s handwriting as well as some textual issues of his plays in the posthumous First Folio.  While many of those thirty-six plays appeared in previous smaller “quarto” editions, Macbeth did not, and the only known example of that play is the one found in the First Folio.  Also, unlike the others, it was not “cleaned up” for publication by scribes like Anthony Munday or Ralph Crane who standardized stage directions and formatting.  By contrast, the surviving version of Macbeth seems to be a last minute inclusion in the First Folio, and is obviously a script from one particular performance.  It also shows evidence of serious abridgment from a lost longer version.  Songs by the witches were lobbed in from other sources, a stage direction to “ring the bell” was actually incorporated into the spoken lines by an apprentice typesetter, and many (including Samuel Taylor Coleridge) believe the scene with the drunken porter was added by another writer for comic relief.  Finally, what remains as Macbeth today is a very abbreviated version at just over 2,000 lines compared with Hamlet at more than 4,000.  All of this and more is explained and discussed in The Vavasour Macbeth as the papers discovered in the tomb continue to reveal themselves.

Finally, there is the question of whether anything really new about Shakespeare and his plays is likely to be discovered in the future.  Having been briefly introduced to the mountains of unread and untranscribed documents stored in the National Archive in Kew, and understanding that there are still a very few people today who can actually read and interpret those documents, I dare say we very might well have some Shakespearean revelations coming sometime in the future.  And it is in the fictional part of The Vavasour Macbeth that I show just how much we believe about the bard might be changed by even a single new discovery – such as papers found in an Elizabethan tomb perhaps?

I hope that your curiosity will lead you to read The Vavasour Macbeth and that you will not be disappointed.  The book is available in print, ebook, and audio editions for your reading pleasure.

Best wishes,

Bart Casey
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About the Author

Bart Casey grew up in London, studied Literature at Harvard, and trained as a professor before switching to an advertising career, living many years amidst the settings for The Vavasour Macbeth. His recent biography of Victorian Laurence Oliphant was chosen by Kirkus for its Best Books of 2016. Now writing full-time, Bart is working on a sequel novel to The Vavasour Macbeth in which the same modern-day characters follow in the footsteps of Byron, Keats and the Shelleys around post-Napoleonic Switzerland and Italy. Find out more at Bart's website

16 November 2019

Special Guest Interview with Elizabeth St John, Author of Written in their Stars

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

I'm pleased to welcome historical fiction author Elizabeth St John to The Writing Desk

Tell us about your latest book.

The third book in The Lydiard Chronicles series, Written in their Stars, is a true story based on surviving memoirs, letters and court documents from my family history. The novel can be read as a stand-alone, or as part of the family saga recounted in The Lady of the Tower and By Love Divided.

Here’s how I describe the novel in the blurb:

London, 1649. Horrified eyewitnesses to King Charles’s bloody execution, Royalists Nan Wilmot and Frances Apsley plot to return the king’s exiled son to England’s throne, while their radical cousin Luce, the wife of king-killer John Hutchinson, rejoices in the new republic’s triumph. 

Nan exploits her high-ranking position as Countess of Rochester to manipulate England’s great divide, flouting Cromwell and establishing a Royalist spy network; while Frances and her husband Allen join the destitute prince in Paris’s Louvre Palace to support his restoration. As the women work from the shadows to topple Cromwell’s regime, their husbands fight openly for the throne on England’s bloody battlefields.

But will the return of the king be a victory, or destroy them all? Separated by loyalty and bound by love, Luce, Nan and Frances hold the fate of England—and their family—in their hands.

What is your preferred writing routine?

Historical fiction has to start with the research, and I love the variety of techniques that we employ as detectives into the past. I begin with fully researching characters, their activities and the intersection of major historical events, until I’ve established a really solid timeline as the background to my writing. Then, I plot where people are at particular moments, and where the gaps are that can be filled in with fiction. 

Once I see how characters are reacting to their circumstances, I start to think of detailed character arcs, develop protagonists and antagonists, and create settings to support the story. At the same time, I’m starting to experiment with fiction: jotting down conversations or descriptions, character sketches, word clouds, photography and maps—especially if I’m visiting places where my characters have spent time.

My favourite writing time is always early morning, probably because when I started writing, I worked full time in a completely different career, and so had to get up really early to write. It’s a habit I’ve never lost, and I still love the stillness and potential of a new day. I also find inspiration in walking, just switching off the drive to get a word on the page, and instead letting the creative brain roam around the edges of my consciousness. That’s often when the best ideas come.

What advice do you have for new writers?

Speaking from my own experience, read, read, read, and start to really understand what techniques the writer is using, what phrasings give you joy, which characters stay with you well after the book is finished. And to write, every day, even if you don’t think you have anything to write about. It’s a muscle that needs constant exercise. Joining writers groups, whether in live communities or online, is always fun and reassuring to find people who share the same challenges and excitement.

What have you found to be the best way to raise awareness of your books?

There’s really not one single way to raise awareness; any effective marketing is a combination of many strategies. Certainly, creating promotions online through the big retailers moves sales and raises the rankings of my books, and I enjoy interacting with readers and other writers on Facebook and Twitter. I really appreciate personal contact, so being a guest at book clubs and author events is always lovely. I’ve been fortunate to speak on behalf of the Tower of London and the Friends of Lydiard Park in the U.S., which has been great fun and created deep relationships between my readers and my work. I really enjoy combining my experiences as a historical fiction writer with lecturing as a historian on places with as much significance as the Tower and my ancestral home.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research.

Researching 17th century spies certainly revealed a number of surprises that were secrets in my characters’ world, and great discoveries in ours. Code names for Allen Apsley, Ned Villiers, Edward Hyde and the king himself; confirmation of spying activities for the Sealed Knot; and a surprise appearance by Barbara Villiers, the king’s mistress, in pleading for regicide John Hutchinson’s life, were all great finds. But perhaps the biggest piece of gossip was the rumour of an illicit affair between Allen Apsley and his cousin Nan Wilmot (the mother of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, and a lead character in the book). That finding created a wonderful opportunity for a subplot, and I enjoyed creating the fiction around the fact.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

There are several major character death scenes—writing these is always challenging, and still moves me to tears. You can’t change the facts, and so creating a believable story around a sad event and doing justice to the characters you’ve loved for so long is really tough.

What are you planning to write next?

Well, if you’d asked me that a week ago, I would have said nothing ever again! Three books in five years with this depth of research has been hard work. But, as I went for a morning walk today, an idea started to form around three of the secondary characters that appear in Written in their Stars—John Wilmot, Barbara Villiers and Frances Apsley. They may just be persistent enough in their demands to have their own stories told that they star in the next novel.

Elizabeth St John
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About the Author

Elizabeth St.John spends her time between California, England, and the past. An award-winning author, historian and genealogist, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, to the Tower of London. Although the family sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it's hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth's family still occupy them - in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost. But that's a different story... Find out more at Elizabeth’s website: and find her on Facebook and Twitter @ElizStJohn

14 November 2019

Special Guest Post by Sarah Kennedy, Author of The King's Sisters

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

The King’s Sisters continues the story of Catherine Havens. It’s now 1542, and another queen, Catherine Howard, has been beheaded for adultery. Although young Prince Edward is growing, and the line of Tudor succession seems secure, the king falls into a deep melancholy and questions the faith and loyalty of those around him.

Is the third novel the most difficult? It was for me. My first novel, The Altarpiece, the beginning of my Tudor series The Cross and the Crown, was the writing on which I learned to be a novelist rather than a poet. That was hard enough (plot, plot, plot!). Its sequel, City of Ladies, seemed somewhat . . . well, not easier, but at least more familiar. I knew my character, and I knew where I was going, as though the field were mine and I had walked it many times before.

Then I hit the third book, The King’s Sisters (a metaphor that plays on the unofficial title of Henry VIII’s discarded third wife, Anne of Cleves, who was called “the king’s beloved sister” after their divorce). In this novel, my main character Catherine has two children and is serving in the household of Anne of Cleves. Henry has just executed his fourth wife, Catherine Howard, for adultery when the book begins—and Catherine has just discovered that she might be pregnant, even though she’s not married.

Writing this story was like encountering a barbed wire fence where there once had been open pasture. I sailed through a first draft, only to discover that I didn’t know how to end it. I went back to the beginning. Again, I wandered into a wilderness and came up against the barrier of an ending that felt like a satisfying and inevitable ending. Again, I went back to the beginning. Again, I arrived at the last fifty pages only to find that I had no idea how to get over that fence and into the lovely land of conclusion.

Did I finally figure it out? Well, I hope so. The book was initially scheduled to appear in 2015, and was actually advertised on Amazon, but it never appeared, except as an Advanced Review Copy for reviewers. It was right after this sort-of release that my first fiction publisher suddenly went out of business. For The King’s Sisters, this shocking and dismaying event turned out to be something of a blessing, because while I was searching for a new publisher, which I found to my delight in the wonderful folks at Penmore Press, I had time to look at the manuscript with fresh eyes.

In doing so, I discovered what is, for me at least, one of the problems with a continuing character or a series of any kind, mine or someone else’s: what can a writer do that’s different, interesting, even unexpected in the middle of a series without losing coherence? Historical fiction writers, like me, often have to cast about for yet another famous person whose biography the character can get tangled in or some event of great moment for the character to become a player in.

But, for me, the answer lies in character, a person who finds herself confronting political and spiritual issues that force her to make difficult choices. I want my main character Catherine to be a human being facing human problems in the human world. Our lives may sometimes be crime stories, and we may sometimes encounter the great and the famous, but human lives are also fictions of love, self-deception, betrayal, triumph, and grief. The notion of “the King’s sisters” became, at last, as much a description of Catherine’s awkward position as a former novice, in a newly Protestant country, who still seeks the company of women as a pun on the title of Anne of Cleves.

It took me a long time to figure out what my Catherine really wants this time. She doesn’t want to be part of the court, and she doesn’t want to marry a prince. She wants the things that many people want: freedom to make choices for herself, security for her children, and, sometimes, a man in her bed. The events that unfold take their shape from her very human and often quite flawed desires. And so, after several false starts and one large disappointment, I was finally able to jump that fence. It was not an easy or pleasant experience, but it taught me quite a lot about myself as a writer and about the construction of a series. On now to Books Four and Five and all of the problems they are sure to bring to me!

Sarah Kennedy

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About the Author

Sarah Kennedy is the author of the novels The Altarpiece, City of Ladies, and The King’s Sisters, Books One, Two, and Three of The Cross and the Crown series, set in Tudor England, and Self-Portrait, with Ghost.  She has also published seven books of poems.  A professor of English at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia, Sarah Kennedy holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing.  She has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.  Find out more at Sarah's website: and find her on Facebook and Twitter @KennedyNovels

13 November 2019

Guest Interview with Anne Easter Smith, Author of This Son of York

New on Amazon UK and Amazon US

I'm pleased to welcome author Anne Easter Smith to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book:

This Son of York is a new look at a very old king—Richard III, who lived from 1452-1485. He is best known for Shakespeare’s cruel depiction of him in the play Richard III, in which he is portrayed as a hunchbacked, murdering monster who usurped the crown and did away with his two nephews in the process. For a start, Richard was no hunchback, but had severe scoliosis. He is one of English history’s most controversial figures, and a king I have been fascinated with and studied for more than 50 years!

The more I read about him, the more a very different man emerged and I got annoyed enough at the injustice of Shakespeare’s and other Tudor historians’ skewed retelling of Richard’s story after he was dead that I wanted to try and set the record straight. (Sorry, Tony, you are probably a Tudorite! Not I!) He was a loyal brother to Edward IV, faithful husband to Anne Neville, and loving father to his children. The laws to improve justice for all Englishmen, highborn and low, that Richard enacted in his one and only Parliament are still in use today. He was a man of his less civilized time, it’s true, but no better or worse than other men of that period. “To be born of noble blood,” it has been said, “is to court an early grave.” So it was with Richard.

What is your preferred writing routine?

I seem to come alive in the afternoon, so I do my chores or social meetings in the morning, have a bite of lunch and then sit down to write. I found I could not write well at home—always the washing up or laundry to do—and so I rented a room in a friend’s house, where I could shut the door, have my library and charts and maps around me, turn on medieval music, and disappear in-to the 15th century.

What advice do you have for new writers?

Unless you are writing purely to make a million dollars (which you won’t!), write what you are passionate about and not what you think will sell. By the time you have cottoned on to a “trend” it will be passé by the time you have written, edited, found an agent, sold to a publisher, and it is published. If it hasn’t come from the heart, your book won’t soar.

I should have written this latest book about World War II instead of Richard if I had listened to the “trend” and I would have found a willing Big-Five publisher; no one wanted a medieval king by the time I finished Richard’s story. I am thankful to the boutique publisher, Bellastoria Press, for accepting my ms, although I missed the advance of my previous books and the hefty clout Simon & Schuster (who published my previous books) has in the industry to launch it into the world.

What have you found to be the best way to raise awareness of your books?

This is my first experience without a big, traditional publishing house (see above) and without a publicist assigned to me, as with my previous books, I am alone at my computer (at my advanced age) trying to figure out how to market myself on social media! It has been the most difficult part of the writing process. But kind bloggers like you,Tony, are a godsend to me for spreading the word. So thank you for hosting me today! (I am also lucky to have a built-in community from the Richard III Society to support me.)

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research. 

I had written four books (now six) about the York family during the Wars in the Roses when an uncle died, and I inherited his family bible. On the fly page, a record of births and deaths of the Easters had been entered through the years. Imagine my surprise to find out that my paternal grandmother’s maiden name was York and had been born and raised in Northampton (where the York family seat, Fotheringhay, is located)!

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

Because I have written variations of the battle of Bosworth in previous books, I was taken aback how devastated I was while describing Richard’s death in this book. Not surprising, I suppose, as this is HIS book after all, and I had been in his head for the five years I spent writing and rewriting it. I chose the Kenneth Branagh Henry V movie score to listen to as I wrote the Bosworth scene, specifically the Non Nobis Domine prayer that ended the battle of Agincourt. I played it over and over as I wrote and could hardly see the keyboard for my tears!

What are you planning to write next?

It’s hard to finish a series of books that has been a passion for the past 20 years since I started writing. I’ll have to begin all over again with a new passion before I can think about a new book!

Anne Easter Smith

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About the Author

Anne Easter Smithis the award-winning author of The King’s Grace and the best-selling A Rose for the Crown, Daughter of York, Queen By Right, and Royal Mistress. She is an expert on Richard III, having studied the king and his times for decades. Her sixth book, This Son of York, will be published soon. She grew up in England, Germany and Egypt, and has been a resident/citizen of the US since 1968. Anne was the Features Editor at a daily newspaper in northern New York State for ten years, and her writing has been published in several national magazines. Fidf out more at Anne's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @anneeastersmith

12 November 2019

Book Launch Guest Post by Jennifer C Wilson, Author of The Raided Heart

New on Amazon UK and Amazon US

The Raided Heart is the first of "The Historic Hearts", a collection of historical romantic adventures set in Scotland and the North of England.

Hi Tony, and thanks so much for featuring The Raided Heart on your blog today. I’ve joked that this is the “Trigger’s Broom” of books, a reference I hope most people still get, but I’ll explain more for those who don’t… 

The Raided Heart started life when I was 13, which, sadly, is not just ten years ago, but rather, twenty-two. If the book was a person, it’s now legally able to do practically anything it wants to! But don’t worry, if you’re tempted to download a copy – it isn’t ‘exactly’ the same book. The original version was set in 1530s Scotland, well before I understood the notion of historical accuracy in fiction. 

My main references for historical fiction at that point were Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and The Princess Bride. Both wonderful stories, but not so great at the ‘being true to the facts’ side of things. But, the story lived with me for twelve years, until 2009’s NaNoWriMo came about, and I thought it was time to look at the old manuscript I knew I had lying around somewhere on my hard-drive. 

That’s when I realised how awful some of the plot was, including additional secondary characters included for no reason whatsoever, appalling dialogue (where I’d even bothered with speaking at all), and oh yes, a completely made-up King of Scotland, Edmund. Hmm…

At the time, I was living in Hexham, and had been re-reading a lot of the history of the region, including the fascinating border reivers, groups of families both sides of the England-Scotland border, notorious for their feuding, raids and violence. The perfect back-drop to a historical romance?! 

Undaunted, I went ahead and did my research, keeping the action in the 1530s, but moving from Scotland to Northumberland, using a lot of the days out I was having to build a new world for the story. Plus, Hexham is home to the first purpose-built gaol in England, which gives a great insight into the world the reivers inhabited… 

I merged a lot of the supporting characters, amended the plot points which weren’t working, and in November 2009, wrote a whole new 50,000 words. There was better dialogue this time. Some, anyway. 

Move forward almost another decade, with a series of ghostly tales published, the story kept niggling away at me, and finally, the time was right to see what I could do about self-publishing The Raided Heart. It needed another rewrite, but the words wouldn’t flow. What could I do? 

Add my muse, of course. So we moved era again, from 1530s to 1470s, when Richard III was Duke of Gloucester, and the Warden of the West March, installed in Carlisle Castle, and trying to keep the peace along the Scottish border. NOW the words flowed! 

Which brings us to now, with Trigger’s Broom displaying new characters, new location, new time period, but essentially, the same plot. To call The Raided Heart a labour of love is an understatement. I’m almost sad to be letting it go from my hard-drive, and releasing it into the wild, but I think, at last, it’s time, and thanks to wonderful editing and support from fellow Ocelots, I know it’s definitely the best it could possibly be.  I hope you enjoy reading it!

Jennifer C. Wilson

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About the Author

Jennifer C. Wilson has been stalking dead monarchs since childhood. At least now it usually results in a story, it isn’t considered (quite) as strange. Jennifer won North Tyneside Libraries’ Story Tyne short story competition in 2014 and, as well as working on her own writing, she is a founder and co-host of the award-winning North Tyneside Writers’ Circle and has been running writing workshops since 2015. Her debut novel, Kindred Spirits: Tower of London was published by Crooked Cat Books in 2015, with the fourth in the series, Kindred Spirits: York, released in early 2019. Her timeslip romance The Last Plantagenet? is published through Ocelot Press, an authors’ collective formed in 2018. Find out more at Jennifer's website and follow her on Twitter @inkjunkie1984

8 November 2019

Histories of the Unexpected: The Tudors, by Dr Sam Willis and Professor James Daybell

Histories of the Unexpected not only presents a new way of thinking about the past, but also reveals the world around us as never before.
Traditionally, the Tudors have been understood in a straightforward way but the period really comes alive if you take an unexpected approach to its history. Yes, Tudor monarchs, exploration and religion have a fascinating history... but so too does cannibalism, shrinking, bells, hats, mirrors, monsters, faces, letter-writing and accidents!
Each of these subjects is equally fascinating in its own right, and each sheds new light on the traditional subjects and themes that we think we know so well.

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About the Authors

James Daybell is Professor of Early Modern British History at the University of Plymouth and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He has written eight books and has appeared in a number of historical BBC TV documentaries. Dr Sam Willis is one of the country's best-known historians. His work takes him on adventures all over the world. He has made 12 TV series for the BBC and National Geographic, including The Silk Road, and has written 14 books, most recently The Struggle for Sea Power: The Royal Navy vs the World, 1775-1782 and The Spanish Armada, a Ladybird Expert Book. Follow them on Twitter @JamesDaybell and @DrSamWillis

7 November 2019

Uncrowned Queen: The Fateful Life of Margaret Beaufort, Tudor Matriarch, by Nicola Tallis

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

The first comprehensive biography in three decades on Margaret Beaufort, the mother of the Tudor Dynasty. During the bloody and uncertain days of the Wars of the Roses, Margaret Beaufort was married to the half brother of the Lancastrian king Henry VI. A year later she endured a traumatic birth that brought her and her son close to death. 

She was just thirteen years old. As the battle for royal supremacy raged between the houses of Lancaster and York, Margaret, who was descended from Edward III and thus a critical threat, was forced to give up her son - she would be separated from him for fourteen years. But few could match Margaret for her boundless determination and steely courage. 

Surrounded by enemies and conspiracies in the enemy Yorkist court, Margaret remained steadfast, only just escaping the headman's axes as she plotted to overthrow Richard III in her efforts to secure her son the throne. Against all odds, in 1485 Henry Tudor was victorious on the battlefield at Bosworth. 

Through Margaret's royal blood Henry was crowned Henry VII, King of England, and Margaret became the most powerful woman in England - Queen in all but name. 

Nicola Tallis's gripping account of Margaret's life, one that saw the final passing of the Middle Ages, is a true thriller, revealing the life of an extraordinarily ambitious and devoted woman who risked everything to ultimately found the Tudor dynasty.

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About the Author

British Historian Nicola Tallis graduated from Bath Spa University with a first class BA Hons. degree in History in 2011, and from Royal Holloway College, University of London in 2013 with an MA in Public History. In 2019 she completed her PhD at the University of Winchester. Nicola says, 'I've been fortunate enough to enjoy a varied career as a curator, lecturer, and researcher, and historical research is my passion. I spent five years researching and writing about the Grey family for my first book, and you're most likely to find me delving into documents at the National Archives or the British Library.'  Find out more at Nicola's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @NicolaTallis

6 November 2019

Guest Interview with Kevin O’Connell, Author of Bittersweet Tapestry: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

As Bittersweet Tapestry opens, it is the High Summer of 1770. Having escorted the future Queen of France from Vienna to her new life, Eileen and her husband, Captain Arthur O’Leary of the Hungarian Hussars, along with their little boy and Eileen’s treasured friend (and former servant) Anna Pfeffer are establishing themselves in Ireland.

I'm pleased to welcome author Kevin O’Connell to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book

Bittersweet Tapestry is the third of a series of four (though it may wind up being five) books in the Derrynane Saga. It picks up the story in the High Summer of 1770. After almost a decade of service at the court of Maria Theresa – as governess to her youngest daughter – now become Marie Antoinette, dauphine of France – Eileen O’Connell is returning to Ireland with her Hungarian Hussars officer husband, Arthur O’Leary, and their son.

Tapestry represents the beginning of a lengthy “hand off” in terms of primary characters from Eileen O’Connell and her generation to the next. Eileen’s younger brother, Hugh (first introduced as a little boy in Beyond Derrynane), is studying at École Militaire in Paris, his path to a commission in the Dillons’ Regiment of the Irish Brigade of France. Their brother, Daniel, is already an officer in the Brigade. Hugh’s gentle Austrian friendship with Maria Antonia (chronicled in Two Journeys Home) having inevitably waned, his relationship with the strikingly beautiful young widowed Princess Marie Thérèse Louise of Savoy is blossoming.

This book is a tale of stark contrasts – between Hugh and Daniel’s lives of increasing prominence amidst the glitter and intrigue of the French court and Art and Eileen’s in English-occupied Ireland – especially as the latter progresses into a dark, violent and bloody tale . . . ultimately involving an epic tragedy, as well as the events leading up to it and those occurring in its dramatic wake.

What is your preferred writing routine?

Ideally, I like to write early in the morning, and late in the afternoon – I frequently print selected pages of the day’s ‘production’ and read and edit them in bed.

What advice do you have for new writers?

(Laughs) These kinds of questions rather intimidate me!  Seriously, I would say, try not to be “afraid” . . . and, as an mentor told me very early in the process, to just ‘write on’.

Once you decide what you’re going to write, be as certain as possible that you know – really know! – the material – no matter what genre you are working in. Also, know your characters – think about them, obsess about them, talk to them even! Be detailed – vividly describe where the story is happening, what the people look like, how they speak their words. Don’t fear dialect – this permits you to alternate between writing, ‘. . . speaking in her precise French, she advised . . .’ and perhaps actually crafting a short sentence in French.

Someone (I wish I could recall who) once said that some Irish writers “dance with the English language” – in the sense that they revel in writing as one does with the certain amount of self-abandon that dancing requires. On my better days, which I believe appear on the better segments of the one thousand-plus pages so far written in Derrynane, I feel I have been able to do this. “Dancing” results in richer, more authentic dialogue; more vivid, greater detailed descriptions of people and places and conveys a deeper level of the emotions of anger, fear – and love – which are so much a part of my genre.

I would suggest that one who dares to “dance with the language” will write more beautifully, certainly more colourfully.

What have you found to be the best way to raise awareness of your books?

Tours like this one (which is extraordinarily well-planned and executed) do a superb job of “getting the word out” – this tour was actually scheduled some time ago to coincide with, indeed to begin on Bittersweet Tapestry’s actual publication date.

Though they are oft-times difficult to get, reviews are immensely important – I have been extremely fortunate to have received not only a goodly number of them over the past few years, but also in that most that have been written about the first two books were largely-favourable, I would add that even “critical” ones help.

Maintaining up-dated, well-written pages on Amazon and Goodreads are also important. Some authors use social media – all variants from Facebook to Twitter – a great deal, others not as much. In all candour, my Facebook page needs some work!

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

It was both unexpected and totally shocking to learn definitively that one of my ancestors – though not a character in any of my books – actually had two families – wives and children – in both Ireland and America!

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

There is an extended (some forty-odd pages) section in Tapestry dealing with a character’s violent death – I would note that I grow very close to my characters – real or imagined, it makes no difference – and this part of the book (and indeed the events leading directly up to it, and certainly those occurring in its aftermath) were beyond painful to write – especially the actual death scene. Once it was completed, I was truly emotionally spent for several days. When I mentioned what really was a sense of loss to my long-time mentor, who is also a superb writer and published author herself, she advised that I was indeed “in mourning” – that, for me, the character had actually lived then died, such that the loss was a genuine and truly painful one.

What are you planning to write next?

One thing about writing a series of books is not having to be coy in the midst of producing them, that readers are fairly certain that there is most likely another one(s) coming – this said, the Derrynane Saga will definitely continue. The story will pick up several years after Tapestry ends and will eventually find its way into the 1790’s – where I envision its ultimate completion. In terms of Book Four, I would add that I actually have a working title and a very rough – mine are always very rough – beginnings of a precis, even some scenes and dialogue. From what I can tell, these will be very eventful years for the characters

Kevin O’Connell
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About the Author

Kevin O’Connell is a native of New York City and a descendant of a young officer of what had—from 1690 to 1792—been the Irish Brigade of the French army, believed to have arrived in French Canada following the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette in October of 1793. At least one grandson subsequently returned to Ireland and Mr. O’Connell’s own grandparents came to New York in the early twentieth century. He holds both Irish and American citizenship. He is a graduate of Providence College and Georgetown University Law Centre. For much of his four decades-long legal career, O’Connell has practiced international business transactional law, primarily involving direct-investment matters, throughout Asia (principally China), Europe, and the Middle East. The father of five children and grandfather of ten, he and his wife, Laurette, live with their golden retriever, Katie, near Annapolis, Maryland. Find out more at Kevin's website and find him on Facebook

5 November 2019

How to Create a Box Set Image Using Book Brush

A 'box set' is a great way to package your book series, even if they can be read in any order, so it can be useful to have a professional image to support your 'awareness raising' activities.

I recently posted about using Book Brush to create videos for Twitter and now a new 'box set' feature has been added, with useful templates. The only time consuming bit is creating the spines (I used photoshop to crop the full book covers) but the rest is just a few clicks.

I'll leave it to the Book Brush team to explain: Box Set Creator on Book Brush from Book Brush on Vimeo.

Tony Riches

4 November 2019

Why do we call this period the ‘dark ages’? ~ Special Guest Post by Dr Julia Ibbotson

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

When Dr Viv DuLac, a medievalist and academic, slips into 499 AD and into the body of Lady Vivianne, little does she realise that their lives across the centuries will become intertwined as they fight for their dreams…and their lives.

Why do we call this period the ‘dark ages’?

Recently, while I was on holiday in the sun, I read a fascinating book by Professor Susan Oosthuizen (The Emergence of the English 2019) which resonated with me and the 'thesis' underpinning my historical (so-called 'dark ages') time-slip novel A Shape on the Air.

The background to my novel rests on my belief that the so-called 'dark ages' were not a time of brutal barbaric suppression by the 'invaders', the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from the continent of Europe - but instead, that it was a time of more gradual change with a succession of migrations from Europe and a settling and merging of communities: the Britons/Celts with the Romans then with the Angles and Saxons. 

But we all know the traditional conventional idea of the ‘dark ages’, don’t we? A time when the civilised Romans left and Britain collapsed into chaos, with villas and towns destroyed and warring tribal barbarians raping, plundering and pillaging each other all over the place? And didn’t the invading Saxons add to the mêlée until the great King Arthur came and sorted them all out?  Well, not necessarily so …

Firstly, we have conventionally referred to the ‘dark ages’ as the period between the withdrawal of the Roman occupying forces (commonly dated at 410) and the mid to late 8th century when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were fairly well established. But why ‘dark’? Tradition has it that it was a time of ignorance and barbaric brutal fighting, and that little of the civilisation, culture or administrative organisational efficiency of the Romans remained. Images of marauding ancient Britons and brutal Saxon invaders, with the settlements and the rule of law abandoned, spring to mind.

But academics and archaeologists now prefer to call 400-600 AD the ‘late antique’ period (‘early medieval’ 600-850AD, ‘pre-conquest 850-1066AD), although some also refer to it as ‘early medieval’. It was only ‘dark’ because we didn’t have the records, documents, artefacts in evidence. Now, in the light of finds (eg in Kent, Essex, Oxfordshire, Yorkshire, Cornwall, etc), that picture is changing.

Some of the myths and misconceptions?

There are many: from the date and ramifications of the Roman withdrawal of troops (sudden departure or gradual?), to the state of Britain in its wake (collapse or continuity?), to the status of King Arthur (literary myth, cunning invention, or historical saviour?).
Did the Romans really abandon Britain in 410? That has long been the date we assume the Romans left Britain, summoned back by Honorius to defend Rome. Traditionalists have believed that the Romans abandoned their villas, their culture, and left en masse, for the ignorant Britons and Celts to allow civilisation to go to rack and ruin.

Now a different view is emerging. It appears (eg from studies of Notitia Dignitatum 4th/5th c AD) that Roman military units were still here much later, suggesting a gradual withdrawal over possibly half a century, and even the ‘Honorius edict’ is in dispute. We only have ‘evidence’ written in the 6th ,7th and 8th centuries either by Byzantine officials or writers such as Gildas, Bede and Nennius, who are now regarded as distant from events, subjective and unreliable.

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 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 bitter inter-tribal battles going on for land acquisition, nor that there wasn’t deep suspicion of the Saxons.

But the ‘modernist’ view is that there was much more mingling of Romano-British society than previously thought, through inter-marriage with the remaining Romans, and likewise for Britons and Celts and even 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.

As to King Arthur … well, I’ll leave that for another time and perhaps another blog… 

So what can we call th
e ‘dark ages’ 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?

Dr Julia Ibbotson

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About the Author

Acclaimed, award-winning author Dr Julia Ibbotson is fascinated by the medieval world and concepts of time travel. She read English at Keele University, England (after a turbulent but exciting gap year in Ghana, West Africa) specialising in medieval language, literature and history, and has a PhD in socio-linguistics. She wrote her first novel at 10 years of age, but became a school teacher, then an academic as a senior university lecturer and researcher. As well as medieval time-slip, she has published a number of books, including memoir (The Old Rectory), children’s medieval fantasy (S.C.A.R.S), a trilogy opening in 1960s Ghana (Drumbeats), and many academic works. Apart from insatiable reading, she loves travelling the world, singing in choirs, swimming, yoga and walking in the countryside in England and Madeira where she and her husband divide their time. Find out more at and find Julia on Facebook and Twitter @JuliaIbbotson