Tag Archives: historical fiction

Finding a Voice that works

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Well, have gotten off to a good start on the next novel, an historical adventure, which if I can pull it off, will sprawl across late-15th century Europe and involve three knaves looking for gainful employment.

Problem is, I’m still in two minds about making the narrative first-person or third-person. I’ve written and published both and as readers and writers know, each has its advantages and disadvantages. First person can pull you in by giving a heightened sense of involvement and immediacy but at the price of a narrow focus and constrained viewpoint (and story-telling). Third-person narrative opens up the scope considerably but can take more work to develop engaging characters and intimacy. I’ve started the new WIP in first-person, as that worked to good effect with my first novel, Gideon’s Angel.  I still remember being bowled over by the voice of an emperor in I Claudius or feeling like I was sipping a single malt at my London club while listening to Harry Flashman regale me with adventures when reading George MacDonald Fraser’s series. However, I’m beginning to have second thoughts about this new WIP so I’ve decided to write the first chapter both ways and see what sits best with me. It has to be an instinctive decision for an author, listening to heart and head to find what will work most effectively for a particular piece. Like most things in the creative space of the mind, it has a lot to do with how one feels at the time. If nothing else, it should prove an interesting exercise in writing craft!

What are your preferences when it comes to reading a novel? First-person or third? Present tense or past?

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. 

 

Memento Mori

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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.

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. 🙂

 

 

The Raven has Landed…well almost

We’re one week away from the launch of The Raven’s Banquet, the prequel to Gideon’s Angel. Published by Solaris Books on 13 May as an ebook, there will also be an exclusive first-edition paperback on sale through Forbidden Planet megastores beginning on 17 May. Forbidden Planet London will also be hosting a signing on Saturday 17 May from 1-2pm at Shaftesbury Avenue so if you’re in the Big Smoke come on down and pick up an autographed limited edition while the ink is still wet. And for those fans of the genus Corvus out there, here is a look at the magnificent cover.

Raven's Banquet

The Raven’s Banquet is coming

on camera

 

 

I’m excited to announce that Solaris Books is publishing the next Richard Treadwell adventure, called The Raven’s Banquet, on 13 May. It’s actually a prequel and will tell the story of how Treadwell got into the soldiering business to begin with. Set on two timelines, 1645 and 1626,  the novel delves into dark places and the past actions of a youthful mercenary. These will intrude into the hero’s present predicament as he awaits trial for treason in the Tower. And readers will also learn more about his predilection for finding trouble of the supernatural sort. Think Platoon meets The Wicker Man. I’ve just completed some video interviews and readings at Solaris HQ and these will be posted on the Solaris website in the coming weeks along with the knockout cover that the team is putting together.

Raven’s Banquet will be available from the Rebellion Publishing store and from Amazon and other online retailers.

Here’s a taster of things:

Germany 1626: A War, a Witch, a Reckoning….

Richard Treadwell is a young man who dreams of glory and honour on the battlefield—and the plunder and riches that would follow. With the help of his father, he journeys to Hamburg to seek his fortune as a mercenary in the Danish army when it intervenes in the vast war that rages in northern Germany between the Catholic Hapsburg empire and the Protestant princes of the north.

But he brings with him an old secret—and the potential seed of his own destruction—as he descends into a horrific maelstrom of conflict and slaughter that quickly destroys his illusions of adventure, of right and wrong, and of good and evil.

When his fate is foreshadowed by a young gypsy woman, he discovers that he cannot outrun what he left behind in England and he soon finds himself thrown headlong into a series of bloody skirmishes alongside the Danes that strip him of conscience and harden his heart. The opposing armies close for a battle that will be the turning point in the struggle for the kingdom—and in the war for his soul. But even as Treadwell steels himself for the final contest against the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor, an unseen enemy stalks him within his own camp.

Fleeing the battlefield, his life takes an even darker turn when he stumbles upon a coven of peasant women dwelling deep in the forest of the Harz Mountains, women that have their own terrible secrets to protect—and a burning hatred to avenge.

The hero of Gideon’s Angel returns to tell how his journey into the supernatural began.

“They are attracted to you as salt attracts the beast in the field….”

Chatting with Solaris Editor Jonathan Oliver (left) and publicist Mike Molcher after we wrap the interview.

Chatting with Solaris Editor Jonathan Oliver (left) and publicist Mike Molcher after we wrap the interview.

I love it when a plan comes together….

Writing historical fiction, even historical fantasy, places certain demands on an author that are different from those in writing science fiction or epic fantasy (with the possible exception The Cockpitof steampunk). Capturing the feel of a bygone era requires careful research in order to gain that fidelity of time and place. OK, not all readers might know the difference or spot anachronisms unless they’re obvious—like a Mongol warrior burning down a village with his Zippo—but many do. And there’s nothing that will kill reader interest faster than a clunker in the setting that breaks the spell.

Some of the crucial scenes in Gideon’s Angel are set in the palace of Whitehall in London in the year 1653. Today, the only remaining portion of that once huge and sprawling complex is the Banqueting House. Most of Whitehall burned to the ground back in 1698, never to be rebuilt. My challenge was to describe the palace through the eyes of my characters, a place I could never visit (unlike Hampton Court). Luckily, I had some help. There were a few architectural plans done of the palace in the mid to late 17th century and they still exist. Also, a couple of paintings show the palace from the same time period. This one by Hendrick Danckerts in 1675 was particularly key. It pictures the west side of the complex from St. James’s Park. By studying the floor plan and the painting, I was able to whitehallwrite a vivid climax that not just described accurately that part of Whitehall including a rickety external staircase and Oliver Cromwell’s apartments, but also used key buildings, such as the Cockpit theatre (the domed part of the palace to the right of the painting) to set an otherworldly showdown between good and evil. Probably the most amazing performance ever witnessed in the Cockpit!

Was this level of verisimilitude really necessary? True, I could have made up the whole layout and floor plan and many readers would have been none the wiser. But there was a reason for doing this other than for the sake of historical accuracy. The real incentive of using the surviving sources, these echoes in time, was that these gave me enhanced clarity and detail to fire my imagination all the more.  And I honestly believe I’ve written a far better scene because of it.

The “Protectorate” declared in London 360 years ago this week:

England’s short-lived republic was bold, imperfect, novel and short-lived but we’re still debating the same issues today

oc2Well, folks, it’s history time and this week is the 360th anniversary of the founding of the Protectorate government in a unified Commonwealth Britain under Oliver Cromwell. “So what?” you may well ask given that a fair few years have passed since then. But I would argue it’s worth stopping to think about this very unusual period in British history and the echoes of it we hear today.

The action in my novel Gideon’s Angel takes place in the months leading up to Cromwell’s effective “kingship” in December 1653. The book revolves around two plots to assassinate him before the Protectorate is established, one Royalist and one infernal. And amongst all the action and swashbuckling, incantations and demon-summoning, there are some interesting themes about who is good and who is bad. I paint Cromwell as a sympathetic figure, a man trying to square an impossible political circle in the ashes of a horrific civil war. He polarized opinion in his own time and continues to do so in ours. And he has received rather a bad rap in our collective memory not least for the brutality of the campaign he waged to subdue Ireland. Yet the Protectorate that he and the few men in his inner circle forged, was a system of government way ahead of its time and one that later influenced the men of the Enlightenment both in Europe and North America.

To quote the website of the Cromwell Association: “Firstly, the Cromwellian Protectorate was the first truly British government in our history, the first to lay serious claim to rule over and to pull together the disparate nations of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Secondly, the Protectorate was the first and so far the last government in our history to be empowered and to operate according to the terms of a detailed written constitution.”

We in the UK are still arguing about the need for a written constitution today, and the need for a reformed (or abolished) House of Lords, or a state church. The Protectorate only lasted a few years and much of what it established was undone in the Stuart Restoration. And it disappointed those true republicans who thought that it was a monarchy in all but name (It was briefly debated that Cromwell ought to become King Oliver but he chose “Lord Protector” instead). But it was a novel experiment in modern government and for all its faults, not a bad effort compared to what had gone before or even what came after.

Again, to quote the Cromwell Association: “The new regime generally held true to the path Cromwell set for it in December 1653 – “to act for God and the peace and good of the Nation, and particularly…to consider and relieve the distress of the poor and oppressed. We should remember and commemorate it.”

Not everyone will agree with that sentiment but Cromwell and the Protectorate are part and parcel of our history and the ripples from that political experiment can still be felt.

 

 

Historical Fantasy requires “world-building” too

If you don’t know it already, head on over to MyBookishWays, a very entertaining blog site atlasthat covers fantasy, suspense and horror fiction. I’ve just done a guest post for Kristin, the website’s very capable editor and moderator,which talks about how authors of historical fiction can’t ignore their world-building skills any more than those who craft epic fantasy.

http://www.mybookishways.com/2013/06/guest-post-clifford-beal-author-of-gideons-angel.html

 

 

Do the old sword & sorcery pulp epics still thrill?

Rewind: Sowers of the Thunder by R. E. Howard

Picked this up for a penny the other day. Plus postage and packing of course. I read
Sowers
back in 1975 when I bought the Zebra special edition paperback with original illustrations. Sold it for next to nothing in the early 90s but for some reason the book popped into my head when I was trawling for historical fiction. My old Zebra edition now sells on amazon for £25 so I guess I’m not the most astute investor. Now I do plan to reread Sowers for the first time in 30 years but I’m a little reticent about it. Will it still thrill me the way my failing neurons seem to make me remember I was thrilled back in 1975?

Sowers of the Thunder, a collection of four unrelated stories, is a departure from the high fantasy worlds that R.E. Howard created and is best remembered for. Of course, he dipped into westerns and science fiction as well, but these are actually historical high-adventure tales. They’re set mainly in the Middle East and Asia in the Middle Ages although the last, Shadow of the Vulture, is actually set at the siege of Vienna in the 16th century. Pity the marketeers at Sphere Books didn’t actually read the book as the cover refers to: “Swordplay and slaughter in the most barbarically splendid fantasy kingdoms ever”.

I’m definitely not the same reader I was all those years ago. And I’ll probably notice now how creaky the plots are, how purple the prose, and how hammy the dialogue (Laurence Olivier might have had a great time with Howard’s lines). Or maybe it will indeed stand the test of time and, given that the stories were written in the 1930s, I’ll think they hold up well. Whatever the case, the most important thing for me will be that Sowers, and the other works of Howard, fired my imagination and my will to write creatively, and set me dreaming about past worlds. It might just be an enjoyable trip down memory lane.