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: