Thursday, October 11, 2018

Bodmin Moor

Our visit to Cornwall in June included several days on Bodmin Moor. When I hear the word "moor" I envision Heathcliff and Cathy running wild among desolate rocky outcrops, their hair streaming back in the wind. Or the hound of the Baskervilles lurking in the mist, waiting for its next victim. Much of the moor is indeed wide open spaces, rock-strewn hilltops and stubby, wind-ravaged vegetation. There are long, sweeping views with few signs of humans and their influence.
The residents here are long-maned white and black Cornish ponies, sharp-horned, colorful sheep and shaggy wild-looking cattle.
This is a place of mist and haze and sunny days are rare. And yet the very openness of the landscape makes it feel exhilarating rather than oppressive.
Ferns unfurl among the rocks and the vegetation is vivid green even if it is low and close to the ground. Everywhere, runlets of water trace patterns in the land. It was fairly dry when we were there, but it's obvious that this is a place that is wet and boggy much of the year. 
Tucked away in a deep valley of the moor was an ancient farmstead that again reminded me of Wuthering Heights (although the book is set in Yorkshire rather than Cornwall). 
Parts of the Mennabroom Farmhouse B & B (where we stayed two nights) dates to the 1300's, including this ancient hearth. I can almost imagine the surly Earnshaw servant, Joseph, reading his bible nearby and muttering curses about evil Heathcliff and Cathy and how they're going to hell for their sinful ways. 

Mennabroom is surrounded by gardens and vegetation that capture the bucolic charm of a rural England that has existed for centuries.  

A highlight of our trip to the moor was a hike up Rough Tor (pronounced "roo tor"). A tor is a prominent heap of rocks, especially on a hill. The climb took me back to my childhood memory of scrambling up the rock formations of southeast Wyoming.  
Although the "tors" of Wyoming are surrounded by golden prairie and sagebrush, and stubby pines and mountains often loom in the background. Rough Tor is a different sort of landscape, older and far more worn away by geologic time and years of mist and rain.
At the top of the tor is a marker dedicated to the Wessex soldiers who gave their lives in World War II. It features a gryphon, another reminder you are in a place steeped in centuries and centuries of mythology
All of Cornwall felt like enthralling and fascinating visit to the world of my long-ago ancestors. But the moor aroused my most intense hereditary memories. I could imagine my forbears in this wild landscape, which still seems only partially tamed today. (My great-grandfather Ernest Logan claimed that the Logan name came from a "loggin" or rocking stone off the coast of Cornwall.) I’m reminded why I write historical novels. Because the past often seems more real and compelling to me that modern high-tech world I normally inhabit. 

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Tintagel Castle--Legend and Ruins

A sprawling fortress, set on a breathtaking precipice above the turbulent sea. Pounded by violent storms and accessible only by a narrow strip of land with a sheer drop on either side, Tintagel is the perfect setting for an epic adventure story. It’s not surprising that this site on the southwestern edge of Cornwall is said to be the birthplace of the legendary King Arthur.

Very little is known about Arthur, the Roman British warlord who fought the Saxons and went on became the most famous king of all time. The few scant “facts” we have about him date from writings in the 7th century, well over a hundred years after he lived. It’s unlikely we will ever know his true place of birth, but it doesn’t matter. Tinagel fills the role nicely. Even today it remains a magical place, steeped in the mists of time. 
The site does have dark age ruins, so the legend is not entirely without merit. On the terraces on the east side of the island (which was connected by an isthmus to the mainland until the late Middle Ages) are the remnants of an extensive settlement. In addition to numerous buildings, there was likely a seawall protecting them, although the stone barrier has long since crumbled away. Pottery found at the site dates from the fifth to the seventh centuries, which perfectly fits the Arthurian era.

The ruins of a medieval castle are even more prominent on the site, and indeed, the area is known as Tintagel Castle on all the maps and signage. The castle dates to the early 13th century, and was built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III. A gate tower and some of curtain wall are still standing.
What is especially intriguing about the castle is that it was built on both the island and the mainland and the two parts of the fortress were connected by a narrow bridge that spanned the gap between them.

On the shore below the impressive promontory is a beautiful beach with vivid blue water,  a stunning moss covered shoreline and an impressive opening into the cliff wall known as Merlin's Cave, probably based on the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson in which Merlin plucks the infant Arthur from the sea. 

If all the history and legends of Tintagel weren't enough to inspire awe, the scenery by itself is stunning. The dramatic coastal formations, topped by emerald green grass, reminded me very much of the northern coast of Ireland. 
 I left Tintagel with several story ideas in my head. Perhaps I would return again to the dark age era of Maelgwn the Great, my first fictional hero and a contemporary of Arthur. Or maybe I will write a medieval romance set in the beautiful wild countryside of Cornwall. Or even a Regency era tale, as the people of the early 1800's were as enthralled with the legend of Arthur as we are today. 
If everything a writer experiences is material for their stories, then Tintagel is breathtaking enough to inspire a dozen tales.  
My latest book features a love story as dramatic and powerful as the wild sea crashing against the Cornish coast. In Lady of Steel, a hardened Crusader knight and a fiercely independent and secretive lady must learn to trust each other and give in to the fiery passion that binds them.  

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The British Melting Pot

Bayeux Tapestry
America is known as the Melting Pot, for our diverse mixture of races and ethnic groups. But Britain could certainly qualify for that description as well, although in Britain, the process took place over many thousands of years instead of just a couple of centuries. From the time of the Neolithic era after the glaciers retreated, the populations of Europe were constantly shifting. In Britain, the influx of peoples was especially intense from the 6th century to the 14th, the time periods we refer to as the Dark Ages and Medieval era.  

The medieval romance I’m currently writing, Lady of Flame is set in the 13th century on the border of modern Wales and England. My heroine is Welsh, but she wouldn’t have referred to herself that way. The word Wales comes from a Germanic term meaning “foreigner”, and you certainly wouldn’t call yourself a foreigner in your own country. The Welsh (back then and today) refer to themselves as the Cymry and their country as Cymru. Although they lost their political independence, they have kept their language. Many schoolchildren still learn Welsh and all their signage is in both English and Welsh.  

My hero’s ethnicity is also complicated. He was born in England, but as a knight for the ruling class at the time, his father would have been descended from the Norman-French who arrived with William the Conqueror in 1066. William was from Normandy, an area of France where a group of Vikings (also called Norsemen or Normans, hence “Normandy”) settled in the eighth century. So William was actually of Norse blood.
William the Conqueror
After William’s line ended, England was ruled by the House of Anjou, who were from a part of France called Angevin. They ruled England until the mid-1300’s. During this almost three-hundred-year period, the ruling class spoke Norman-French, not English. And almost everything that was written was in either Latin or French, rather than English. The term English comes from the Angles, a Germanic tribe who invaded England in the sixth century, along with the Saxons. 
Royal Arms of England dating to the Angiven era

After a William's arrival, the English resisted for awhile. But even though they didn't win back control of the country, because there were so many more of them than the Norman French, they gradually absorbed the invaders into their culture. In a way, they had the ultimate victory, as the country ended up with their name and speaking their language and a high percentage of English people today have Anglo-Saxon DNA rather than French.

Unlike the English, the Welsh and the highland Scots continued to defy their Norman-French rulers furiously. The Welsh ended up keeping their language. The Scots retained some of their language as well as other aspects of their Celtic culture, like their plaids, their bagpipes and their whiskey.  
Welsh Flag
I recently had my DNA tested, and I have genetic markers associated with the Irish, British, French, German and Scandinavian peoples. So in a sense, my mongrel genes are a mirror of Britain. My Scandinavian DNA could be from the Norse who settled in Scotland or England. My Irish DNA could be from either Ireland or Scotland, since the Irish ruled Scotland for a time period. My German DNA is similar to that of the Angles and Saxons who settled in England. And since I know I am descended from Edward I, who was one of Angevins, my French DNA could have come from his line. Although more likely it came from my more recent family members who carried the name Napier.

I’m not thrilled about being related to Edward I, the brutal king who is the villain in Braveheart. Lady of Flame is set during the time of Edward's grandfather, King John, and John wasn’t a great person either. He longed to control Wales (and Ireland), but was distracted by his struggles in France. His son Henry III was too weak and ineffectual a ruler to conquer his pesky neighbors. But when the English barons rebelled against Henry, it made a lasting impression on his son, Edward I. Edward was determined to be a strong king and he took out much of his anger at his father’s humiliation on the Welsh and the Scots, devoting his life to subjugating and crushing them.
King John
During the time period of Lady of Flame, the conflict between Wales and the English was mostly at a simmer, with sporadic raids by the Welsh on the holdings of the Norman-French lords who controlled the lands in south Wales and along what is now the Welsh-English border. That conflict is mirrored in the contrast between my heroine and hero. Fiery, tempestuous Marared represents the free-spirited Celtic culture of the Cymru while thoughtful, loyal knight Gerard comes from the more regimented and formal world of the Normans. It seems like a terrible mismatch, and they both have much to learn about each other on their thrilling journey to love and happiness.
La Belle San Merci by Frank Dicksee (Perfect image for Marared although the knight is too thin and fair-haired to be Gerard.)
Lady of Flame takes place about ten years after my latest book, Lady of Steel. Lady of Steel is not about a class of cultures or wills, but about two people who meet under horrible circumstances and end up falling in love. But they both struggle to overcome the dark secrets of the past and to learn to trust each other.

Excerpt from Lady of Steel 
      The tower room seemed much too small. It was like being caged with a wild creature. Fawkes left the table and approached. Nicola fought the urge to draw back. He seemed to sense her apprehension, for his fierce expression softened. “I don’t want you to fear me, Nicola. Unlike some men, I don’t believe in striking women. Or children. Or anyone smaller and weaker than myself. If I were ever to feel the need the discipline you, I would choose other, more civilized means.”
Discipline her? What did that mean? His words sounded reasonable and reassuring, but there was an edge of warning there. She must find some way to convince him she wasn’t his enemy. She must make it clear she would never deal with him as she had with Mortimer.
Body rigid, her heart pounding wildly, she said, “Milord, you must understand. Mortimer was a brute. There were many times I feared for my life at his hands. Whatever you may have heard of me…” Her hands trembled as she gestured and this time she was glad he saw. “I did what I had to do to survive.” And for Simon to survive.
His expression softened. His dark eyes again flared with violent emotion. “You forget. I knew Mortimer. He tried more than once to kill me. I have no sympathy for him. None at all.”
She let out her breath. Perhaps now they could begin again, and he would stop playing this game of cat and mouse with her. She nodded. “I’m very grateful you understand. I’d worried you might have heard tales of me, stories meant to portray me as wicked and manipulative.”
He watched her intently. “Aye, I have heard tales. ’Tis good you saw fit to reassure me. Perhaps now, perhaps we can…” He let his words trail off and the atmosphere between them shifted. His dark eyes no longer seemed stern and implacable, but smoldered with frank sexual desire. The tension between them changed, erupting with blazing arousal.
Fire started in her loins and spread outward, making her skin ache for his touch. She tilted her head, awaiting his kiss.
He hesitated, as if even now he feared to take this final step and give into what his body obviously desired. Observing his forbearance, she thought for the dozenth time of how different he was from Mortimer. Mortimer had been a slave to his emotions. This man sought control at all times. 
But at last he brought his lips to hers. The blaze took them both.


Friday, January 5, 2018

The Truth about Castles

There's lots of things I love about writing stories set in the Middle Ages. The dashing, heroic knights, damsels in graceful trailing dresses, scenic pastoral countryside settings, unspoiled by modern roads and buildings. And then there are the castles:
Even when crumbling to ruins, they remain awe-inspiring. I especially love the way they blend into the landscape, with soaring towers, weathered stones and jagged walls merging seamlessly into green hillsides and blue waterways.
Cardiff Castle
Dolwyddelan Castle
Dolbadarn Castle

Sterling Castle
There are somewhere around 600 castles and defensive sites in Britain. Wales alone had 600, with over 100 remaining. A few are well-preserved and functional as actual residences. Others are little more than piles of stones. Castell Dinas Bran, below, was once a castle, but it was burned in the thirteenth century and never rebuilt. All that's left are these evocative ruins.

Visiting most historic castles, you have to use your imagination. Even well-mortered stonework crumbles after that long. Where there were once beautiful halls adorned with tapestries, massive hearths with a roaring fire, and trestle tables crowded with knights and ladies in their finest velvet and sarcanet clothing, you now see barren, rough spaces, often open to the elements. Those rooms that remain intact are chilly and gloomy even in summer.   

 Splendid walkways must now be supported by scaffolding, and once magnificent towers are guarded by ravens and seagulls. Moss, lichen and delicate flowers invade formidable walls that once formed an impregnable barrier against attacking armies.
To capture the sense of what these structures might have been like in their heyday, you have to visit a castle like Sterling in Scotland, where period furniture helps recreate sumptuous bedchambers while actors and displays attempt to recreate a long-ago world. 
It's easy to be impressed by the drive and ambition involved in building castles. The larger ones took years to construct and cost the equivalent of millions of dollars for materials and labor. I'm amazed by the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the people who designed and constructed them. They had only primitive tools and engineering skills had advanced little from Roman times. I'm even more blown away when I think of the people who dwelled in castles, thriving in a environment devoid of all the comforts of modern life.

Even in our high tech era, castle fascinate us. The only thing in our world that begins to compare are skyscapers. But they lack the rugged beauty and primal magnificence of even the smallest castles. And the views from the tallest modern building, no matter how spectacular, can't compare to the sweeping grandeur of lush countrysides and breath-taking seascapes afforded by these ancient giants.

Conwy river and bay seen from Conwy Castle.

The view from the other side of Conwy.

Conwy Castle seen from Deganwy Hill
My newest book, LADY OF STEEL, takes place almost entirely in a castle and the area immediately surrounding it. Of course, Valmar Castle is a very idealized castle, with much larger "tower rooms" and other features that would never have existed in a relatively minor nobleman's keep. Valmar Castle is also much more comfortable than a real castle and definitely smells a lot better! But it was inspired by the real thing, and I hope my depiction of this long-ago world captures some of the magical beauty of castles.
Dolwyddelan Castle
Of course you have to keep in mind that castles came into being because of warfare, and many of the details we find intriguing about them were directly connected to that purpose. Arrow slits, moats, walkways and crenels (the jagged top edges of the walls) were intended to make castles easy to defend. And the sites where they were built were chosen based on battle strategy, rather than for the pretty scenery in the area.  

Violence and war play a big part in LADY OF STEEL as well. A gripping, suspenseful story always needs conflict and there was never any shortage of that in the Middle Ages. But what draws me to castles is their mystical appeal and the sense of traveling back through time.

Available January 10th

One rapturous hour sparks unforgettable passion between Lady Nicola and Fawkes de Cressy. But when Fawkes returns from Crusade, he finds Nicola enmeshed in a dark web of castle intrigue. Surrounded by enemies, the battle-hardened knight and the aloof, wary woman must rebuild the bond between them. Or a sinister plot will destroy them both.

Pre-order links: