Sunday, February 27, 2011

#SampleSunday - Isabeau, Ch. 8


Ch. 8
Isabella: Tynemouth Priory, 1322

(Isabella and her damsels flee from an approaching band of Scots.)

Beyond the cliffs where the Benedictine priory sat, a rising wind lashed at the blue-black sea, churning the waves into foamy peaks. Against the ragged shoreline, the raging waves crashed in sprays of white. Then, broken and hushed, they retreated seaward in defeat. At the northern edge of the horizon, the sky had already begun to darken again.

I looked once more toward the priory, wondering if I should order us back to wait until tomorrow, but with a glance Patrice banished my thoughts. She did not want to relive York, nor did I.

My men-at-arms lifted the small rowing boat from behind a sand dune and carried it forward on their shoulders. I waited on shore while they rowed my damsels out in twos and threes to board the ship. The youngest of my damsels, Cecilia de Leygrave who was fifteen, hovered at my elbow, already blanched in complexion.

“You do not like to sail, Cecilia?” I asked cautiously.

Tremulous, she cast her brown eyes toward the lowering horizon. “Oh, I have not sailed much. Once before maybe. I was little then, so I don’t remember much of it. But I do not like storms, my lady. I do not like being wet or cold or standing out in the lightning. Ida told me once about her cousin who was struck by lightning—there was nothing left of him but a pile of ashes in his boots and the ring from his finger. And I have heard there are monsters in the sea that follow ships. That they especially follow ships with women on them.”

It was strange to see the usually witty and tittering Cecilia so terror-stricken. I hung an arm over her shaking shoulders and forced a laugh. “Was it Ida who told you about the sea monsters who devour women? She is full of silly stories. Well, I have never seen a sea monster, nor have I ever known anyone who has. It is simply a tavern tale told by old sailors to make themselves sound braver than they are. So you needn’t worry about monsters, Cecilia. They don’t exist. Besides, I have hired the best sailors and the fastest ship north of London. We will arrive somewhere safe sooner than you know.”

But I stretched the truth. The ship I had commissioned for our rescue was one that had recently been blown back by storms. A sodden and battered crew had crudely mended its sails, sliced by the gale. The hull had received a hasty caulking of moss and a spotty daubing of pitch. Its seaworthiness was highly suspect, but taking ship was no surer a fated death than remaining at Tynemouth.

She pressed her fingertips together in a hasty prayer. “I am to be betrothed to a squire from Oxford. A good man, I’m told. He sent me this.” She splayed the fingers of her left hand and wiggled them to show a ring of tarnished silver set with a milky blue stone. A pretty bauble, it was nothing of great value. To her, however, it was a treasure.

“Very beautiful.” I leaned close to peer at it. “So you have not met?”

She twisted the ring on her finger. Then, deciding it was loose, she switched it to another finger. “No, but he writes. I have one of the monks read them to me. It is . . . embarrassing sometimes, what he says, to hear a holy man say it. But he sounds most kind.”

Two soldiers each extended a hand to help us into the little rowing boat that reeked of fish. “A very important trait for a husband to have. You will be happy.” I hooked my arm through hers and together we walked into the foamy rush of cold waves that wrapped about our feet. The boat rocked as we each stepped into it. We plunked down on a rowing thwart in the front and the two soldiers took the back, leaving the oarsman in the middle. I hugged Cecilia close. As I did so, I saw, far to the south and high up at the edge of the cliffs . . . a line of horsemen, armed. Their silhouettes cut stark and ominous against a gray veiling of clouds. The tips of their spears jabbed at the sky as they rode hard and fast along the thin lip of earth.

The oarsman pulled hard, grunting, and we slipped away from shore. My heart tumbled in fear with each jerk of the oars. Most of my damsels, including Patrice and Juliana, had already boarded the broad-bellied merchant ship that would take us down the coast to safety, but three others still waited on shore for the rowing boat to return for them.

Cecilia bit fiercely at her lip as we lurched toward the bobbing ship, each wave knocking our tiny boat back almost as far as the oarsman could manage to advance.

“He will be in York, waiting for me.” Her voice was barely a whisper above the roar of waves around us. Rain began to fall suddenly, heavily, stabbing at my shoulders and back. Cecilia crouched down before me and tucked her head tight against my bosom to keep the rain out of her eyes.

I did not think to ask what her betrothed’s name was, so fixed was my attention on the horse-men now leaning back in their saddles to plunge rapidly down the steep trail toward the shore. “Do not worry, Cecilia. The brunt of the storm is to the north. Away from us.”

But there was a closer fate to the south, closing fast. The last of my damsels were quaking in a tight huddle at the edge of an angry sea. A remnant of my guard, four men, waited with them. A small garrison had remained at the priory, thinking that if anyone came to attack, they would approach by the road to the west. Lightning cracked overhead. One of the soldiers glanced up at the cliffs. In the flickering light, sword blades glinted. I could now make out the round, studded shields affixed to their forearms—the targes of Scots. And at the lead a man with wild black tresses that fell to his shoulders. With his sword thrust out before him, he raised himself up out of his stirrups and closed on those below like a demon of the night.
The garrison soldier let out a cry to stand in defense. The black-haired Scotsman cocked his arm back and leaned out hard to the side. His blade slashed through the darkness and severed the man’s bare neck. The soldier who had given the warning was forever silenced. His head bounced in front of the terrified clutch of women and rolled to the water’s edge. The man’s torso swayed until a gust of wind finally pushed it over.

Above the crash of thunder, I could not hear the screams that followed.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

News and #SampleSunday

Hi All!

A great big thank you to all those who have e-mailed me in the past few weeks to say how much they enjoyed the first two books in The Bruce Trilogy and ask when the third and final book will be available. I have a few more chapters to write and then edits and proofing to do, but I do hope to have it out sometime this summer. It's entitled The Honor Due a King and again follows Robert the Bruce, James Douglas and Edward III from 1314 to 1330. I love hearing from readers, so don't hesitate to contact me ( imgnr "at" imgnr "dot" com).

Also, graphic designer Lance Ganey is putting the finishing touches on the full cover for Worth Dying For. The paperback will be available by early March. I'll post here when it shows up on Amazon.

I'll be doing my first appearance and book signing ever on Sunday March 6th from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Enon Historical Society in Enon, Ohio. So come on by!

Last but not least, here's this week's installment for #SampleSunday, from Ch. 3 of Worth Dying For. Still pursued by the English, the remnants of Robert the Bruce's army are holed up in a cave near Loch Lomond whil they tend to their wounded. James Douglas has gone out to fish with another man and fallen asleep. He has a rude awakening.


“Look ‘ere,” a gruff voice said. “A Scottish dog, good as dead.”

The dull fog of sleep lifted suddenly like a blanket thrown off. It was not Wallace’s voice, nor Robert’s. Neither was it Torquil’s.

Through barely parted lashes, I glimpsed a man with a bulging paunch standing over me. He grinned and flicked his tongue over lips pocked with sores. Drooping jowls rough with black stubble melted into a thick neck. The man had not suffered for lack of food, or from the guilt of gluttony. He reached beneath his oversized leather jerkin and scratched at this crotch. Then he lifted a nicked and rusty sword. Its point pricked the soft of my belly.

My heart thumped in a wild cadence. I curled my fingers around empty air. My blade lay tangled in the grass, only a few feet away. If I reached for it, I was dead. If I didn’t―I was dead then, too.

His mouth spread into a macabre smile of jagged yellow teeth and irregular gaps. A guttural laugh shook his flabby gut and gurgled out of his throat, making him sound like a braying donkey. “Scared, are you? Don’t worry, I’ll keep you alive long enough to get some sport out of you.”

I opened my eyes fully, gauging his quickness against mine. No contest. I would have skewered him in a heartbeat in an honest fight. Gutted him like the fat pig he was. That was when he pressed the point deeper into my belly, reminding me who had the advantage.

“Will, over ‘ere!” he bellowed. “Look what I found me!”

With every shallow breath I drew, the sword point bit harder, almost burning. I held my breath. Fear, or fate, whatever it was, held me entranced to observe the slow approach of my own death.

God’s teeth, I had always thought I would die in a furious blaze of glory, not like this. Not in such a pathetic, helpless way.

Behind him, twigs cracked. Footsteps plodded, then stopped.

He chuckled, this time scratching at his buttocks. “What do you say we should do with him, Will? Chop off his fingers, one knuckle bone at a time? Gouge out his eyeballs, maybe? I like that one, I do. Won’t be pretty no more, then, will ‘e?” He guffawed, amused by his own cleverness.

“Let him go.”

The pig-bellied Englishman stopped laughing. He cocked his head sideways, not daring to take his eyes off me. “What did you―?”

A thwack cut off his words. He stumbled forward, as if someone had shoved him from behind. But there was no one there. A line―wet, burning―trickled warm across my abdomen to pool in my navel. The sword had pricked my flesh. It slipped from his grasp and thudded to the ground.

His tongue popped from his mouth, red foam bubbling around it. He lowered his eyes to gawp at his chest, where the tip of a wooden spear point protruded. Bright blood clotted in the Englishman’s stubbly beard, spurted from the hole in his breast. Empty-eyed, he stared at me, making little croaking sounds―and fell.


Happy reading,

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What was Robert the Bruce really like?

On occasion, I have been asked if I would have liked to live in the past. Hmm, well . . . no. That seems an odd thing to say, coming from one who has spent the last decade studying the events of 700 years ago and writing about them, but let me put it this way: I'd like to be able to visit the past, provided I get to take my Universal Translator (like the ones they had in Star Trek, because how else would I understand what the medieval Scots were saying?) - and if I'm allowed to come back whenever I need to, because I would not want to be stuck in the Middle Ages interminably for lots of reasons. Having just spent nearly two whole days without electricity following an ice storm, I can honestly say that modern comforts have made a wimp of me. If I had to stumble through the Scottish Highlands in the dead of winter, sleeping on the ground in the open air, without central heating to thaw my bones, insulated Goretex snow boots, and hot Toasted Almond coffee that appears with the push of a button, I would be one major whiny-pants. This is why I have not applied to become a contestant on Survivor. I would probably draw blood in order to win reward after having to spend my nights sleeping on a bamboo mat under a leaky palm-leaf roof in a monsoon, while cockroaches the size of guinea pigs crawled over me.

One thing I would like to do is go back, for just a little while, and get to know Robert the Bruce. I mean, what was he really like? Not the king or even the soldier, but the man. Historians have done a great job of compiling historical documents from both sides of the war and giving us the English slant vs. the Scottish one. As a novelist, I don't believe my job is to repeat what so many accomplished scholars have already done. I believe it is my job to give a more human interpretation of what Robert and his contemporaries were like as people, not historical figures who made only political or military decisions.

Yet in doing so, I risk failing to meet the expectations of some readers - and I'm well aware of that. It is the inherent danger of writing biographical historical fiction. If a reader comes into the opening pages believing Robert was stoic, unfailingly decisive, and without regret or guilt, then I'm not likely to convince them that he may have been otherwise. My interpretation of Robert the Bruce is just that - mine. And if I can humanize him well enough, hopefully readers will accept how I have chosen to represent him.

So did I make all this stuff up about what he may have been like? Or did I find the Secret Diary of Robert the Bruce hidden in a spidery cave somewhere in Argyll? Uh, no, neither actually. I take the known facts, a smattering of legend and fill in the holes as best I can.

One thing we do know about him is that Robert the Bruce was an exceedingly forgiving person and a man who was willing to compromise for the long-term and greater good. For example, he later forgave and accepted into his service the Earl of Ross, who was responsible for capturing his wife and daughter as they were trying to escape to the Orkneys and then handing them over to the English. How many of us could have been that Gandhi-like? (I don't know about the rest of you, but I can hold a grudge forever.) Robert did so because he needed allies and he wanted Scotland to stand as one. If he had made a point of punishing his fellow countrymen regularly that would only have served to divide them further.

Another matter that makes me believe he was a man who loved deeply was his pursuance of Elizabeth de Burgh. He met and fell in love with her at a time when he was a declared rebel against Longshanks (Edward I of England). The sticky issue was that her father was still an adherent of Longshanks, so in order to marry her he would have to once again submit to the English crown. Which meant that to many of his fellow Scots he was an opportunist and not really on their side after all. Quite a dilemma. He desired Elizabeth, but he also wanted to be king. In the end, he chose the woman. Very romantic. (Swoon.)

Imagine the torment he must have suffered later when she was taken captive by above mentioned Earl of Ross and delivered into the hands of Longshanks himself. I don't think it's too far-fetched to say that he would have missed her terribly and maybe even have questioned how he could have kept her safe.

While many documents exist entailing the Bruce's political and military actions, we have fewer accounts of him as a private man. English chroniclers naturally tend to vilify him, while Scottish ones relay the legends surrounding him which paint a more heroic portrait. Here's an example from a 14th century Scottish chronicler John Fordoun:

"This man [Robert the Bruce] seeing them [the Scots] stretched in the slough of woe, and reft of all hope of salvation and help, was inwardly touched with sorrow of heart; and, putting forth his hand unto force, underwent the countless and unbearable toils of the heat of day, of cold and hunger, by land and sea, gladly welcoming weariness, fasting, dangers, and the snares not only of foes, but also of false friends, for the sake of freeing his brethren." (From Chris Brown's Robert the Bruce, A Life Chronicled)

I question that he suffered all those trials 'gladly' (perhaps ' with acceptance' would have been a better term?) or that he did so purely for selfless reasons, because he was an ambitious man who believed that the crown of Scotland was rightly his by birth. Clearly though his character was one of perseverance and brotherhood.

Did he ever question his goals or his actions? Let me wrap up this post with a quote that Fordoun attributes to Robert: "Were I not stirred by Scotland's olden bliss/Not for earth's empire would I bear all this."

Until later,

Sunday, February 13, 2011

#SampleSunday - The Crown in the Heather, Ch. 12

Today's excerpt is taken from The Crown in the Heather (The Bruce Trilogy: Book I), Ch. 12. The year is 1301. After visiting James Stewart at Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, Robert must at last say goodbye to Elizabeth de Burgh. His feelings for her are strong, but their future is a very uncertain one:


It was the coldest of February days when Stewart, his wife, and Elizabeth gathered in the courtyard as the horses were brought out for Gerald and me. Brittle winter air shattered our frail words of farewell. Reluctantly, I handed my Marjorie back and she clung to Egidia’s skirts. Tears glistened on her pink cheeks. Coll padded across the slick cobbles, leaned against her leg and nuzzled her fingers.

I took Elizabeth’s face in my hands and kissed her sweet and long upon the lips. My mouth trembled not from cold, but from the wave of pain pulsing with every beat of my heart. For weeks, I had denied this moment would ever arrive. Now that it had, it was as though some emptiness threatened to devour me whole. Fool that I was, I thought I would be able to endure this parting bravely, like some eager young soldier venturing off to war. Instead, I felt . . . desperate. Or determined. I didn’t know which.

Once, ambition had consumed me. But for all that I wanted to pursue what my grandfather had begun, it seemed meaningless without Elizabeth. What I thought I had always wanted—it had changed.

“Say you’ll be my wife, Elizabeth. Say that you will and I’ll fly back the moment I can and take you in my arms and never let go.”

She looked down, as if she sought to hide the tears brimming over her long lashes. “Please, Robert, I . . . I can’t promise that. You know why.”

Gently, I lifted her chin in my fingers and stared into her eyes, as green and glistening as the Lothian hills after a spring rain. “I thought surely we . . . Oh, damn it, Elizabeth. Do not give breath to such murderous words. Give me reason to hope.”

She brushed my whiskered cheek with smooth fingertips. “We can but hope. That is all, no more.”

I pulled her in close—yet even as I did so, I realized I had brought this upon myself . . . upon us.

“We’ll find a way, my love. By all that is true and sacred, we will find a way.”

I meant it, more than I even knew.

I had mourned long enough for Isabella. I wanted to live again—truly live. Not for some tomorrow that might never come, but for now.


Happy reading,

Sunday, February 6, 2011

#SampleSunday - Isabeau, Ch. 6

When I began to write about Queen Isabella, the wife of King Edward II of England, the story at first was solely in her voice. But there were gaps in it - huge holes in time and plot. The only way to bridge those gaps and give the story the dimension it needed was to allow Roger Mortimer to have his own voice. So Isabeau became as much Isabella's story as it was Roger's. I'll admit, by today's standards he's a bit of a chauvinist, but he also felt strong connections to certain people in his life, one of them being his uncle, Roger of Chirk.

Here's part of a scene from Ch. 6 of Isabeau, A Novel of Queen Isabella and Sir Roger Mortimer. Roger, his son Edmund and his uncle have submitted to King Edward II and been taken prisoner. They arrive at the Tower of London to await their fate:


I was not spoken to again until we reached the inner bailey of the Tower of London. There, they snatched the blanket away and pitched me sideways from the wagon. My elbow and chest slammed against the cobbles. Air was sucked from my lungs. Before I could draw breath, Edmund landed across my legs, tumbled over, and banged his head on the stones. He gritted his teeth to keep from crying out, but a long hiss of pain escaped his mouth. I choked and sputtered as I fought to breathe. Then I saw another shadow wobbling above me. There was an irascible grunt, followed by a spit and a curse.

They hurled my uncle from the wagon. My torso broke his fall; only he did not land with the lithe reactions of my son, but the dead weight of an old man stiff in the joints. I tried to inhale, but his weight crushed me. My lungs would not expand. Down low my ribs burned with pain, as though someone had plunged a flaming poker into me.

“Get . . . off,” I gasped.

They hoisted him to his feet and began to drag him away.

I tucked my right elbow beneath me to roll over, but the pain burst through me again. With my hands still bound, I could not push myself up with either of them. The scrape of fading footsteps urged me to try again. I lifted my other shoulder and turned my head enough to see, in the silver etchings of a winter night, my uncle being escorted toward one of the tower doors. A virulent sneer tore from his lips.

“May you rot in hell!” he shouted at me. His crackling voice echoed off the high walls like the shattering of glass. They shoved him headlong through the doorway. He cursed again. The door slammed shut. Then . . . the sound of a beating. His profane oaths were muffled by fist blows, until at last they faded to heavy sobs and drawn-out whimpers.

On his knees, Edmund shook his head. Slowly, he turned his face toward me. A trickle of blood traced its way from the indent of his temple to the ridge of his cheekbone. “He did not mean it,” he said barely above a whisper.

At that, one of the guards seized him by the back of his shirt, yanked him to his feet and slammed a fist into his belly. “Keep your mouth shut, you hear?”

Edmund crumpled against the wagon, his eyes squeezed tight in pain. Before he could recover, they hooked their hands beneath each of his arms and were taking him away, too. Had I any breath to spare, I would have called after him. With stoic courage, Edmund lifted his head, picked up his feet, and kept silent so they would not give him the same pummeling they had given his great uncle. He was escorted to the same door, but when it was opened there was neither sight nor sound of my uncle. Edmund dodged to the side to avoid being slammed into the doorway as they jostled him through.

Vaguely, I was aware of the clop of hooves, the wagon rattling away over the stones, a barking of orders, the groaning of a gate, and the slow murmur of deep voices from behind me.

“—the Lanthorn Tower. There is a room for him there. Mind you, no one is to speak to him.”

Measured footsteps approached me from behind. I felt a pair of hands lift me carefully up until I was sitting. I winced involuntarily.

A man in full mail and wearing the king’s red and gold stepped around me and sank to his haunches. His balding head, bare of coif or helmet, was fringed with close shorn chestnut locks and streaked with the first white hairs of middle age. “A bit bruised, aren’t you?” He began to probe about my head with lightly jabbing fingers and worked his way down my neck and shoulders. When he came to my last two ribs on the right, I clenched my jaw, but there was a little groan deep inside my throat he must have heard, for he drew his hands away and stood. “Take him away. And see to his injuries. ‘Tis the king who says whether he lives or dies, and when, not us.”

Silently, I thanked him for that grace, however morbid.

Meanwhile, I'm the Guest Writer over at the web site of historical fiction author Fred Nath. Fred's book, The Cyclist, is a poignant tale of World War II France and is the first in a trilogy. It was an Editor's Choice selection in the February 2011 issue of the Historical Novel Society's Historical Novels Review and reveals a different (and very human) side of war. Check out Fred's web site for more information!

Happy reading,

Friday, February 4, 2011

Whose baby is it, anyway? Or - How to cope with criticism

No human being in the world is immune to criticism. Redecorate your living room in retro 70's to remind yourself of your childhood or buy yourself a fancy new outfit that says, "There's nobody else like me!" and chances are someone else will hate your choices. Unless we're talking about your mother, common social courtesy says we don't publicly pass judgment on others' tastes. We may have an opinion, but when we're face to face with our peers, be they friends or strangers, we don't tell them what we really think of their too short haircut and bad dye job, ugly new clogs, or the little black dress that looks like a Hefty trash bag the dog threw up on. We don't even dare hint that their newborn baby might be . . . ugly.

As writers, we pour so much of our souls into our stories that sometimes they feel like real babies to us - living beings that we carried in our wombs for endless months and then forced out in agonizing pain, only to be left drained and yet somehow . . . pleased with ourselves. Then, like raising children, we nurture that conglomeration of words and thoughts, trying to shape it into something better and respectable. Finally, we cut the strings and release it into the world: our book, our precious baby.

Only, it's not our baby once we let it go. And that's a hard concept to grasp.

Every writer hopes for praise. We bask in it when it does come along. We're motivated by it. Sometimes, we're just stunned by that someone actually gets it. But we all also get our fair share of criticism - and it can be devastating, if we let it be. The first bad review I ever got, I retreated into my shell for days, a worm of nausea gnawing away at my confidence. I re-examined my life goals. I felt guilty for selfishly hoarding time away from my family when I could have been doing something more productive with my time - like earning money at a real job. I admitted that maybe, just maybe, I had been deluding myself for years with a pipe dream.

Somehow, I found the courage to go on. Possibly, I am just too stubborn to admit defeat. Most of all, I felt I couldn't let down those who had believed in me, encouraged me and offered sincere praise. So I persisted.

The scariest part about writing isn't having the commitment to do it; it's having the guts to share it. So, it becomes a welcome surprise when people start to buy your book. And an even bigger shock when some of them tell you how much they enjoyed it. It's a special thrill when a complete stranger from halfway around the globe asks when the next book will be out, because they've already read all the rest.

It's inevitable, though: the more books you sell, the more likely it is that someone will buy your book and find it's just not their thing. If we all liked the same thing, there wouldn't be any variety in the world and what a bland place that would be.

A writer I very much respect once said that she figures once a book goes out into the world, it no longer belongs to her, the writer. It becomes the property of the reader and the reading of it becomes their experience. Not everyone is going to connect with it.

When I get a harsh review now, I read it once and never again. When I get a really, really good one, I print it off and tack it up on the cork board. It reminds me to focus on writing for the people for whom my writing resonates and not to dwell on those for whom it doesn't.

I may have started out writing for myself, but now the realization of a lifelong dream has finally sunk in. I'm writing for readers, the vast majority of them people I don't even know - and that both humbles and elates me. Thank you, each and every one.

Happy reading,