It’s Christmas come early!

books

Oliver Cromwell may have outlawed Christmas but Rebellion Publishing is giving it back. Get your fix of 17th century historical fiction and fantasy at practically a giveaway price. Beginning on 11 November, you can pick up Gideon’s Angel and The Raven’s Banquet for Kindle over at Amazon and make some substantial savings–better than half price on each title. It’s only until Friday, mind you, so grab your device or head over to the Amazon US or UK websites. 

 

By Odin’s Beard!

vikings1publicI’ve got a very good friend who is an ace photographer and now the official “war correspondent” for the Viking Varangian Guard. When she sent me these group photos I was blown away by their intensity. These are so beautifully composed that I felt that I just had to share them with the wider world.  I’ve done some historical reenactment in the past myself, medieval and 17th century, but these guys are the real deal. The Jomsborg Ulflag “Amateur Sports Team” are one of the largest Viking-era reenactment groups in the world.vikings2public

They take part in competitive steel combat which has been held in London for over twenty five years, with most of their members based in London and in the home counties surrounding London. They’ve grown to such a point now that they also have members throughout the UK and internationally within “The Ulflag”. 

Check out more of Gesine’s incredible work over at:

https://www.facebook.com/GesineGarzPhotography

And to find out more about the Ulflag, grab your axe and head over to:

http://ulflag.com

700 K Mark Profile

 

Roll up for the Freak Show!

AHSFreakShowPosterAmerican Horror Story’s latest series, Freak Show, got off to a rip-roaring start on Fox TV (FX network in the US), invoking the 1930s screen memory of Todd Browning’s Freaks (banned for years) and adding more contemporary (and very adult) elements of modern horror. Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates lead an excellent cast and combined with high production values, the show delivers some gruesome thrills. Twisty the Clown will have you reaching for the tranquilizers or a stiff drink. Freak Show is set in 1952 in Florida and the first episode combined campiness, suspense, and even some pathos. I’m hoping that future scripts deliver on character development and the terrible challenges of being “different” in a conformist judgemental world, far worse in fifties America than today. But empathy might be a challenge for the writers given that a few major characters are already portrayed as murderers (and that’s just the first episode).

Watching the show reminded me of my own childhood experience of seeing one of the last American travelling sideshows back in 1968. Long before the political correctness movement had entered society, carnival freak shows had been a summer rite of American life across the country. I had been shopping at the local department store with my mother and was in the checkout lines when I saw a man with two faces. He wasn’t wearing a mask and had just popped in to buy some things but the effect on other patrons was disturbing.  It was a horrific deformity, an extreme cleft palate that had divided his face. I do remember noticing that his third eye looked painted-on. Mother hustled me out fairly quickly but a few days later I ended up seeing him again when we went to the sideshow one evening.

melvinThese are hazy memories so long ago but I remember the gasps of the punters as the two-faced man pulled  off his burlap mask. The “talker” for the show also performed: he was the Human Blockhead who nailed spikes through his nose and then pulled them out, swallowed swords and fire, and who could suck in his guts so you could practically see his backbone. Amazing and somewhat terrifying for a ten-year old and I’m still at a loss how I was allowed in. Other “exhibits” included a woman suffering from elephantiasis, a bearded lady, and well, the rest have taken root in some forgotten corner of my memory.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I’ve now identified some of those I saw. They were part of the Jamesdurks E Straits sideshow which travelled the US for decades and had come to Rhode Island that summer in 1968. The “Man with Two Faces” was a gentleman named Bill Durks who worked the carny circuit from his early forties until he died (even finding love and marriage there). The Human Blockhead was Melvin Burkhart who died at the age of 94 in 2001, performing right up until a few weeks before he passed away. Reading about their lives now, all these years on, one is impressed with their humanity and the obstacles they overcame. Freak shows still exist in the US, but are no longer the same as they were in the 20th century. The ethics of such entertainment are debatable and we live in a different age now. And thankfully, many of the debilitating conditions that led to sideshow freaks are medically treatable. But I’m glad a little online research transformed these people into individual human beings from the “monsters and freaks” of my childhood.


			

Crossing swords at Fantasy Con 2014

This year’s British Fantasy Con at York was a veritable cavalcade of good clean fun: great panels, old friends, new friends, and evening sophistication (carousing), all necessitating several additional days of recuperation afterwards. I had the pleasure of being on a panel that took a critical look at swordplay in fantasy and film. This led afterwards to a very impromptu demo of sword skills and myth-busting in the bar next door featuring fellow scribes Adrian Tchaikovsky, Juliet McKenna, Fran Terminiello, and David Moore. Thanks to Annie Catling we’ve got a video. (I’m assured no bar-flies were harmed in the making of this film)

What I’m doing at Fantasy Con 2014

 
FC2014Very much looking forward to York this weekend and seeing everyone again at this year’s Fantasy Con.

I’ll be participating on a panel session Saturday 6 October that’s bound to have some sparring (and possibly with steel) and will also be doing a reading from the incredible hair-raising memoirs of Colonel Treadwell (Gideon’s Angel to be exact).

Here’s the skinny from the official website over at www.fantasycon2014.org

11.00am – The Pen vs the Sword
Writers who also happen to be swordfighters discuss the myths and realities of the sword in fiction – and demonstrate their skills with the blade!
Marc Aplin (m), Fran Terminiello, Juliet E McKenna, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Clifford Beale

Readings from authors commence on the Friday evening and I’ll be doing mine on Saturday at 10:20 am (hopefully after the double lattes have kicked in).

Hope to see you there! Check out the latest on the twitter feed: @FantasyCon2014

 

Baron Munchhausen moment

Fell in love with this 1760 longcase clock at Croft Castle outside Hereford. There’s a delightful creepiness to it and reminded me very much of a Munchhausen style Man in the Moon

And for those fantasy lovers who haven’t heard of the  famous 18th century “lying” Baron, here are a few links to get you started.

A short history over at wikipedia

You can even download a free copy of the book here at Project Gutenberg

And of course, there’s the quirky Terry Gilliam film that is well worth a viewing.

baron

Could Richard III actually sling a sword?

 

smee_3008364b (1)

Britain’s Channel 4 aired a fascinating documentary this past week, Recreating Richard III—a forensic investigation with a twist (spinal twist really). Historians have always questioned the battle prowess of Richard III given his back deformity and after his remains were conclusively identified, and the extent of his scoliosis seen, these doubts took on greater weight.

Step in Toby Capwell of the Wallace Collection and the Channel 4 team who set about trying to discover whether Richard could have actually dealt with the physical stress of medieval battle. Amazingly, and by chance, they linked up with a 27 year old reenactor with scoliosis. And, as it turned out, with the same degree of spinal curvature and shape as Richard III. Dominic Smee became Richard’s “body double” over a period of months, training in riding and swordfighting and even had a custom suit of armour made for him to account for his twisted ribcage and back.

The results were astounding and made for fascinating viewing as it turned out that even this degree of scoliosis would not preclude swinging a sword effectively. Dominic couched a lance, smacked the quintain, and sparred with foot soldiers. Even did a charge of 700 metres over broken ground.  Admittedly, endurance was a problem as his ribcage could not expand enough for his lungs and heart to pump effectively, meaning that he would run out of puff after a few minutes. As someone who used to reenact medieval combat in full armour, I know that feeling all too well and my ribcage is A1.

Some of the points were not all that surprising: turns out that riding in a medieval saddle provides more support and control than a modern one. Duh. The postage stamp of a modern English saddle is a joke to those of us who ride Western.  There was a parallel thread of analysis on Richard’s skeleton to provide clues on his diet. Turns out that after he became king, his meat and wine consumption went off the scale (leading researchers to claim this affected his overall health and could have contributed to physical failures in the field). But what about every other noble quaffing gallons of wine and eating a whole roast pig for lunch? Seems it was an even playing field in that respect. But at the time of his death, aged 32, his spine already had arthritis and constant pain would have been his companion. Far more likely a contributing factor to his demise perhaps.

For me, the answer was never in doubt. Far too many references in the historical record of Richard’s fighting prowess and not unexpected for someone who would have started training as a boy. Overall, a fun and compelling view and well worth catching if you can online.

Memento Mori

mori1

It’s not your ordinary run-of-the-mill holiday snapshot I’ll admit, but to see it was both moving and slightly disturbing. We were in the Languedoc region in southern France last week and visited a medieval abbey in the hamlet of St. Guilhem le Dessert which lies tucked into a verdant hillside fed by mountain streams. The abbey crypt  contains the bones of Saint Guilhem, an advisor to Charlemagne and the the founder of the abbey who brought back three pieces of the True Cross from Rome. The abbey eventually became a major stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Spain and Santiago de Compostela. The crypt also contains this bit of installation art entitled “Memento Mori”. It’s actually a giant rosary comprised of  fetters and human skulls and is, depending on your point of view, very devotional or just plain macabre. I sort of liked it (which probably tells you a lot about me). The bottom of the rosary chain (which is out of frame) extends beyond the iron bars that seal off the crypt and terminates in two leg irons that lay unlocked and open upon the floor. Symbolic of the release to a better world, I suppose. At any rate, for the kids running around me it was probably as good as any ride in the Fun House at the amusement park.

But something else resonated for me. The opening chapter of my current work in progress, The Guns of Ivrea, is set in an underground crypt and involves a terrible discovery made there by the monks. It was more than a little spooky to see the place you had built in your mind’s eye now laid out for real before you. From the worn sandstone slabs and stones, eroded capitals on the ancient pillars, and the dust of ages on the dirt floor, if a writer ever needed raw material for his imagination, then here it was. We ended up visiting several medieval towns and their Romanesque churches and abbeys on our trip in the Herault region and each offered something unique in detail, evoking more images and scenes I have already written as well as some I have yet to scribble down. They say that travel broadens the mind, but for a writer, it can also supply the spark to bring fiction and the characters that inhabit it, to life.

I’m headed to Loncon3

OK, folks, it’s bearing down on us like a runaway double-decker on Hampstead Hill. It’s Loncon3:LONCON3_logo_270w the 72 World Science Fiction Convention held at the London ExCel Centre from 14-18 August. This one looks set to be huge with a packed programme and many multi-media events in addition to the usual literary discussions and panels.

I’ll be taking a seat alongside Anne Lyle, Elizabeth Hand, Laura Goodin and John Clute for a panel session on the Sunday (1500-1630) called:

Imagining London: History and Fantasy

 

And here’s how the organizers bill it:

London has long been a rich venue for fantastical storytelling. But  how has the image of fantastic London changed over time? How was fantastic London created in the work of writers like Dickens, Stoker  and Doyle, and how does that vision differ from the historical-fantasy  London’s writers are creating today? Which aspects of London have  consistently attracted writers, and which aspects have been unjustly neglected?

I’m dusting off my 19th century fantasy tomes and revising to prepare for what should be a fascinating discussion come the day.

SF Chronicles interview

chronicles-logo-3Last week, Brian Turner over at SF Chronicles kindly asked me for an interview about writing historical fiction and he’s graciously allowed me to share it with you here. So, read on, or better yet, go check out the SF Chronicles site itself: http://www.sffchronicles.co.uk/forum/548768-interview-with-clifford-beal.html

 

Many thanks for talking with chronicles. :)

Very happy for the opportunity!

First things first – The Raven’s Banquet is a cracking book, but only appears as an eBook on Amazon at present. Are there any plans for Solaris to launch a paperback as yet?

Actually, Solaris has published a special limited edition paperback, initially available only through ForbiddenPlanet.com so readers can grab a copy via their shops or the internet. Solaris may offer it on their website at some point and there will be copies at upcoming cons this summer and autumn. It’s a beautiful edition with an exciting cover and endpaper illustrations.Raven's Banquet

One immediate problem I can see with the novel is where to place it, in terms of genre – on the one hand, it’s potentially ‘historical fiction’, but on the other, could be ‘flintlock fantasy’. I think I’ve seen you describe yourself as an “historical fantasy writer”. Do you see yourself as a cross-over writer, or do you prefer one pigeonhole over another? And did you have any problems getting Gideon’s Angel accepted for publishing because of that?

I do see myself as a historical fantasy writer but I hate to have my work pigeon-holed into neat little categories. Genre fiction has exploded in the last 20 years into so many sub-categories that it’s all become a bit muddled if you feel the compulsion to put fantasy into neat little boxes. Historical fantasy, urban fantasy, horror, alternate history, all of these could describe Raven’s Banquet and Gideon’s Angel but my aim was to just write historical adventure with a fantastical twist. Certainly, with “crossover” works you run the risk of falling between two stools. With marketeers running the major publishing houses these days at the expense of editors, if you can’t shove a book into a clearly definable category (and a ready existing market) it risks rejection. Shame really.  I’m pleased that Solaris champions works that are chimeras and I think genre readers benefit from it.

 

One of the more interesting things about your writing is the use of inflected language to create something of a period feel. Did you ever worry that this might be a risk, and alienate some potential readers? Or did you always see it as an essential part of the setting and atmosphere itself?

This is always a tough call when you write historical fiction. Too much modern slang and you can destroy the spell you’re trying to create. And on the other side, if you strive to accurately recreate period language and cadence you run the risk of readers not having a clue what your characters are saying. But I agree that some form of period speech is essential in creating that realistic setting and conveying the atmosphere of a time gone by. I sought to achieve a balance in the language by providing enough cues and archaic phrasing to make the reader understand this is set in the 17th century but not to make it obscure and a turn-off. I’d like to think I got this balance right and luckily most readers seem to agree.

 

Historical research obviously plays a role in your writing, and there’s a long debate on how much fact can be dispensed with by fiction in fantasy writing. How do you personally balance the demands of the story vs the demands of the historical record, and do you find it difficult?

To paraphrase an expression, “History: you really could not make this s**t up.” So many amazing and interesting things have happened in any given time period that for me it’s more a case of grafting on the fantastical to what really transpired. I’d like to think I was fairly meticulous in researching time and place in both the Treadwell novels. But I included only what was absolutely necessary for the reader to know about the politics or intrigues at the time to build the plot and atmosphere and one certainly doesn’t have to understand the English Civil War or the court of young Louis XIV to follow the story in my novels. It’s all about the characters and the plotlines and I have avoided throwing in lumps of exposition to set the scenes. Hard to do that anyway when you write first-person narrative. And I’ve never intentionally changed events, customs or places to fit a storyline which is something often seen in cinematic treatments of history. I find Braveheart toe-curlingly awful. Speaking for myself, I haven’t had trouble squaring the circle between accuracy and storytelling. I just try and let the reader absorb the atmosphere of the 17th century without giving an overt history lesson and let the plot drive things along.

 

FC-BC (GIDEON'S ANGEL) US smallYou now have two Richard Treadwell stories out, but what plans do you have for the future? Do you plan to keep with him as a serial character, or do you have different projects bursting to get out that you hope to share with us son?

I absolutely love Colonel Treadwell in all his shades of moral greyness. I have an outline for another Treadwell adventure, this time set in Massachusetts in the 1650s. Think Puritan ayatollahs, unhappy Indians, and a Lovecraftian horror based on an actual native legend. But that’s on hold for the moment as I’ve begun an epic fantasy series for Solaris set in a secondary world very much like renaissance Europe—only with mermen. And manticores.  I suppose you’d call it a traditional epic fantasy but I see it as historical too. Sort of as if someone from 1490 was penning a  “contemporary” fantasy using the mythological.  It’s called Valdur and should be out next summer.

 

One of the problems with writing about war is that inevitably its unpleasant nature will have to be described. You give us a glimpse of the horrors in The Raven’s Banquet, but you don’t flood the reader with it. Do you find it a challenge to determine how much violence to show, and how concerned are you about pushing a reader’s boundaries of comfort?

For me, the subliminal is usually preferable to an outright gore-fest. Not because it is necessarily bloody but because it can get very boring.  Having severed limbs and spilled entrails every few pages quickly desensitises you—or puts you to sleep.  The build-up and suspense leading to the violence of murder or battle can lend itself to providing character insight while the brutality itself becomes a graphic depiction of those drives and motives. If writing fiction is painting in words, sometimes not showing something allows the reader’s own imagination to take over. That said, I haven’t shied away from bloodletting in my novels and it’s difficult to write about a soldier’s life without describing violence. Again, it’s a question of balance. I found it difficult to write a scene in Raven’s where torture is inflicted on a hapless merchant. But it had to be described to show the immensity of what was happening to the main character and his slow slide into depravity.

 

Now that you’re establishing yourself as a fiction writer, which other books would you cite as particular influences? And are there any fantasy authors currently being published that you especially keep an eye out for?

Michael Moorcock has always been a great influence on me as a writer and I’ve been reading him since the early 70s. He seamlessly blends good history and high fantasy in many of his works and as a storyteller he is second to none. The Warhound and the World’s Pain is a particular favourite of mine, as it’s set in the 17th century. But all of his novels have brought me immense pleasure over the years. I’m looking forward to his “White Friars” series which is out in November. And although it’s not fantasy,  I have greatly admired the scope and prose of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin books. Now that is true literary historical fiction. Readers today are spoilt for choice in fantasy with so many great voices out there. I’ve got a copy of Mark Alder’s Son of the Morning on my desk and I’m looking forward to diving in soon. If you haven’t heard, it’s the Hundred Years War but this time God and Lucifer pick sides to actively support!

 

The inevitable writer’s advice question! Are there any particular tips or recommendations you would pass on to aspiring writers, to help them on their journey?

It may sound trite, but nevertheless it’s as true today as it has always been: Don’t give up. Keep scribbling, keep reading others, and never be afraid to rip up your prose and rewrite it. I’ve never regretted a single rewrite I’ve done and invariably your work will always benefit.

 

Many thanks for speaking with us – it’s been a pleasure, Cliff. :)