Monday, May 14, 2018

Last Rites and Burial

When writing in any era, the end of a life can take on various meanings, depending on the beliefs of the deceased individual. There may be an exotic afterlife to consider or particular funerary rites to adhere to. Tossing history into the mix brings with it layers of archaic ritual, older cultural boundaries and long-extinct practices. Therefore, this can be a complicated yet fascinating aspect of writing historical fiction.
West Kennet Long Barrow
photo: E Moxon
In my ‘Wolf Spear Saga’ series I must consider many factors in relation to the death of my characters. For my Germanic characters, they descend from a warrior line. Kings and tribal leaders would have received the ultimate in ornate burials with plenty of grave goods. If he is an experienced horseman, he may even be buried with his ‘noble steed’. However, in times of danger when there is little time to linger for fear of return attack, they might resort to a funeral pyre. This may be inevitable after battle if they have several dead warriors and limited time. Cremation was for centuries an acceptable form of funerary rite, even when some turned to Christianity. Grave goods have been found in Christian burials, despite not being a religion that encourages the placing of sacred objects with the body or cremation urn.
Religious beliefs come and go, evolving and overlapping throughout history. Forms of burial container exist in hundreds of designs that have beauty or function to carry the dead into whatever future they perceived lay before them. Some expected to be collected by fearless shield maidens who would deliver them to the feasting hall of a one-eyed war-god, in order to battle into eternity. Others would expect to meet other deceased relatives in a summer meadow, able to lead a fruitful, playful existence with their array of grave goods.
Snettisham Great Torc
Deaths of religious figures, such as priests and priestesses also vary depending on cultural and religious differences. Evidence has been found of herbs in Coptic jars and headdresses or pillows made from the leaves of plants considered to have magical powers. Essences in bottles and flower garlands worn as funerary adornments can hint at the importance of incense or plant oils accompanying those who possessed the ability to see the future or read the messages from scented fires. Embalming is a particular ritual that was perfected by the Egyptians, though is not restricted to their ancestral history alone.
photo: E Moxon
Finally, then there are the cultural rituals replete among warrior tribes and the elite among ancient peoples. The Welsh and Irish sagas abound with the ‘rites of passage of kings’, with several tales of fathers being brutally murdered by sons. This has a multitude of connotations, from disgruntled sons eager to remove fathers from thrones to the right of every warrior to die a noble death. To die ungracefully in one’s own bed would be a disgrace to many a brave king, but were a son to ‘send’ his father to a noble death via the sword, then the king’s reputation and warrior-status would remain intact. This act, a ‘rite of passage’ could send the king into his chosen afterlife.
Oseberg Ship Burial
~ ~ ~
Do you consider the end of your characters' lives as much as their creation?
How much detail and thought do you employ when creating characters?
Has a character's death affected you when writing/reading it?

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Workshop Cafe

Today I ran a 'Writing Workshop' at a local cake café in my neighbourhood. It was a beautiful blend of creative camaraderie and idea sharing, with cake!

A gaggle of writers
It all began one day while talking to the owners and enjoying their baked wonders. Kiss Me Cupcakes are a most welcome addition to our local community, not least because of their gorgeous baked delights. They are enthusiastic about bringing people together in their delightful wood-panelled café for a variety of events, sharing creative endeavours and eating cake. Did I mention there is cake?

Writers' Fuel
While I run a bi-monthly writing group at my local community centre, I thought it would be fun to hold a workshop, especially for those who find it difficult to begin a project. It can take time and immense effort for people to overcome the initial hurdle of putting those first few words on a page. Using some fun activities and simple handouts my little gaggle of writers went home today with 50-100 words of a story, a basic plot arc and some idea of direction.

Heads down for the '50 words' round!
We decided we loved it so much, we'll be doing it again soon. A big thank you not only to the café, but also the attendees who were inspiring and enthusiastic! Thank you especially for the marvellous feedback.

Me in my Author's Nook

Monday, April 16, 2018

Tackling Diversity in Historical Fiction

Following on from 'Autism Awareness Week' I thought it apt to discuss a plot element in my forthcoming second ‘Wolf Spear Saga’. Some time ago I was involved in a discussion online about diversity in historical fiction. You can read the blog post I wrote about it here.

Today, however, I want to focus on one factor from that discussion, which has become entwined in my second saga. When drafting book two, the conversation I had had with other authors about diversity lingered in my mind. I wanted to challenge many historical novels I had read in the past that ignored conditions that have modern names, but would have existed in the past nevertheless. I needed a strategy that would bring such a condition into my novel in a way that would be acceptable to modern readers, but also credible in a 5th Century setting. My portrayal of this character would have to be true to my genre and my contemporary audience.

“Invisible disabilities we experience today, such as elements of the autistic spectrum, would have no name in the 5th Century…”

In choosing to have a character on the Autistic spectrum, I knew I would be unable to label this condition with terms and phrases we use today and that those around the character would also lack this knowledge and vocabulary to describe him and his behaviour. I knew at the outset this would present me with some steep challenges and I was ever conscious of creating something too stereotypical and offensive. I knew other characters in the story would be governed by their spiritual beliefs and fear of things they could not explain or that seemed to be evil or magical. My character began as a complicated being with some undesirable and inherited personality traits, even before I decided he would be autistic. I had to consider these traits carefully and calculate how his autism would effect or enhance these parts of his personality.

“Public responses to these conditions would be ruled by culture and spirituality.”

I drew on experiences from my own life and enrolled the help of someone with daily, personal knowledge to also assist me. After some deep discussions with this individual I began embellishing my character and those around him who would be there to assist or abuse him, because of his outward behaviours and responses. I wanted to provide him with a very small circle who understood him and were there for him. I also wanted to explore those who were scared by him or deemed him dangerous and those who would exploit his behaviour for their own ends. Once I had completed my first draft, I had the specific scenes featuring the character proof-read to ensure the content was acceptable to a modern audience, but that it also contained authentic references and behaviours.
 Here is a description by his older brother:
‘His brother was ruled by the Dark Mother. She held sway over the tides of his inner ocean, tossing him on wave after wave and drowning him in his own emotion. Their Queen had been his steer board; …adrift on an unrelenting, storm-ridden voyage, [he] heard no one else, for they were mere morsels of windswept words. Wulfsieg realised he would be wasting his breath. Like land-locked onlookers crying out from the shore through wind and rain, [his brother] would never hear him from his lonely one-man vessel.’

While language used to describe this character is embedded in the 5th Century, as I wrote I became more aware that attitudes to Autism continue to challenge wider society; that there exists even today, those who misunderstand the struggles of being on the spectrum. I found myself writing provocative scenes, displaying others abusing the vulnerability of my autistic character and contrasting, deeply emotional scenes revealing the extreme fragility of my character, despite his roguish outward persona.
I hope my readers will find reading about him as interesting as I found it to create him on the page.
And I hope others will be encouraged to be diverse in their fiction.

Have you tackled a difficult subject in your writing?
How did you decide to include it in your writing?
What were some of the challenges you faced?

Saturday, February 3, 2018

New Beginnings...Hello 2018!

Imbolc Hare                 photo:

Brighid gave the moon her fire,
Warmed the earth with a lunar pyre,
Freed from icy tombs underground,
Life fed roots and plants did abound.
E.Moxon 2018

The new year has crept in under a cloak of snow; for many a dangerously deep cloak. The Hag of winter has let us feel her icy talents only too well, wreaking chaos and causing us to remain indoors. She is cunning. This enforced hibernation is her plan, so we have sufficiently internalised our intentions for the year ahead - holed up like other mammals at this time of year, to pause and reflect on what it is we want from 2018.

As we emerge into the Celtic festival of Imbolc (ewe's milk), 'Breo sagit' the fiery arrow lights our way. In Pagan circles, the triple goddess is shedding her crone skin and becoming the white virgin maid once more, her birch staff and lantern guiding us from out of the dark wood of winter and into the path of spring. Her companion, the wolf, leads the hunt for nourishment as Brighid's lantern, illuminates the shadows.

Super Moon                                                        photo:
The super blue blood moon crossing 31st January to 1st February, literally over Imbolc itself, would have been a potent omen in ancient times. They may not have named it as such, but it would have been a symbol of intense feminine lunar power. Rites and rituals were guided by the cycle of the moon and sun and rare spectacles bring with them a particular magic.

Imbolc is, like all Celtic festivals, tied to the cycles of the earth through the seasons. It is the time of first shoots, when we seen green buds forming on some plants and trees. Crows and magpies begin searching for nesting material so they can mate with their partners. It is the season for lambing, with many ewes lactating, hence the root of the festival's name. It can be a time to plant the first seeds now the frosts have ceased.

Spring Meadow                        photo: E. Moxon
In the modern world we can be so disconnected from nature, that we do not pause; we do not see the changing environment around us, except perhaps to moan about the weather on social media. If you take a moment and listen, look around you and observe, you will hear the earth. When she asks you to be still, rest. When she asks you to break into action, react. Move with her and she will reward you, as she does today for many farmers and gardeners.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Diversity in Historical Fiction

A while ago I became involved in an online discussion about diversity in historical fiction. It covered all aspects of inclusion, though mostly became centred on disability. While there are certain restraints put upon histfic writers by the very nature of history (what groups of people were where at given periods; what roles they possessed), there remains an element of freedom to include diversity.

Taking disability as one aspect of this, what comes to mind in modern life is someone who is physically aided by a wheelchair or crutches or perhaps has an artificial limb. Asking people to consider a more historical viewpoint can trigger stereotypical imagery of the wooden-legged pirate with eyepatch. Unless that is what you are striving for in your novel, there needs to be further consideration of the nature of the period in which you are writing and what disabilities will be prevalent.

In the times of the great plagues there would have been disease causing coughing and infections of the skin, or other ailments of putrefaction. In the dark ages of 5th Century sub-Roman Britain, where I set 'WULFSUNA', there are skirmishes and full-scale battles with hundreds of warriors. Being crushed in a shield wall, beneath horses' hooves and receiving spears, arrows or blades to the body would be common. Those who survived might walk/limp/crawl away with facial features or limbs missing/damaged.

These are physical disabilities. There are also the emotional disabilities, some as direct results of these same battle experiences mentioned above. Being 'battle drunk' is a documented Medieval condition, whereby men wander the battle field post-conflict as though drunk and unresponsive. We know today that this is a result of being thrust into the 'fight' mode of the body's natural 'fight or flight' response. Long hours spent in this heightened state literally poisons the body with high levels of cortisones and adrenalin, which take a long time to disperse. Add to that post-traumatic stress and you can imagine the vacant, trance-like euphoria of these wandering warrior-zombies. Not being aware of this modern science in the 5th Century, a familiar state is attributed and hence we have 'battle drunk'.

Here is where the level of understanding and translation of a disability into a historic period creates confines for the histfic writer. Research is imperative. People of the 5th Century do not know what adrenalin is or post-traumatic stress. Invisible disabilities we experience today, such as elements of the autistic spectrum, would have no name in the 5th Century either. Public responses to these conditions would be ruled by culture and spirituality. This fascinated me and has led me to create a character within this period to see how they, and those around them, would respond to this condition being expressed. However, one thing to remember when writing in any period, is that your audience is contemporary with a modern outlook. This creates a requirement to balance the realism of the historic period, while being empathic to your readers and their (in many cases) extensive knowledge or experience of these conditions.

What are your thoughts on diversity in historical fiction?

Have you created characters with a disability?

What types of diversity would you like to see in historical fiction?

Writing as ‘E S Moxon’, Elaine's debut historical fiction adventure ‘WULFSUNA’ was published January 21st, 2015 and is the first in her Wolf Spear Saga series. She is currently writing her second novel, set once again in the Dark Ages of 5th Century Britain, where the legendary Saga ensures a Seer and one named 'Wolf Spear' are destined to meet. You can find out more about Elaine’s novels on her website or follow her on Twitter or Facebook. Elaine lives in the Midlands with her family and their chocolate Labrador.

~ ~ ~

Blood, betrayal and brotherhood.
An ancient saga is weaving their destiny.
A treacherous rival threatens their fate.
A Seer's magic may be all that can save them.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Building Believable Characters

When people talk of 'building' characters I'm always reminded of the Sci-Fi film 'West World' with Yul Brynner. However, this is effectively what we are doing even though it is in our minds and the minds of our readers. We want our characters to be real and three dimensional, as though we could see them walking down the street. Every writer has their own method for moulding and sculpting paper creations into living, breathing, 'real' beings our readers will believe. I thought I would share some of the things I have done, some of which you may already do, or don't do and might find useful.

I begin with visual basics - hair/eye colour, height and build - so that when I am writing down first draft scenes and dialogue I can at least add simple descriptions. I consider their role: are they a warrior, a Druid, a peasant or noble? All of these suggest their standard of living and perspectives on life, which add to their personalities. If they have relatives that will be mentioned in the same novel, I write a brief background description of each relative and what their relationship was like with this individual; this adds depth to their upbringing and familial interactions.

Cultural, spiritual and linguistic heritage are all aspects of someone's character that can define them. Although all my characters speak English in my novels, I model their language use as much as possible on their mother tongue. For instance, my Saxon characters use dialogue with their roots in Old English words of Germanic origin [i.e. amid, become, wend, shield]. The sounds of these words add a Saxon flavour to their speech. Likewise, I have Romano-British characters who would be speaking an early form of Welsh, the P-Celtic language. In modern Welsh there is a word for yes [ie] but you can say 'yes' in many forms depending on how you answer a question:
Does she understand? [Ydy hi'n deal?] Yes (she does). Ydy.
Are you coming? [Ydych chi'n dod?] Yes (I am). Ydw.
Were you there? [Oeddech chi yno?] Yes (I was). Oeddwn.
When the character responds with these answers of 'Yes she does' or 'Yes I was' despite being written in English in the novel, these formulate a hint of the Welsh grammar structure that this character would utilise in speech. Another layer or flavour if you like, that adds to the realism of the character.

Culture also denotes what social etiquettes a character is likely to follow, while spirituality forms their beliefs in certain morals, type of deity worship and afterlife concepts. Insert political viewpoints in relation to the period in which you are writing and you have even more material to play with. For a Druidic character, I have examined the sacrificial and divination practices of the Order. Reading the future from the entrails of dead animals and humans gives a grim insight into the beliefs held by this spiritual group. Another method of divination called 'imbas forosna' is to divine by chewing on raw flesh and placing your hands on your cheeks as you fall asleep. The future is then supposedly revealed through dreams. This presents the possibility of including all the senses in descriptive writing, bringing your reader within the character using touch, smell, taste, sight and sound.

Another interesting tool I use is the inclusion of animal traits in certain characters. The obvious one (writing about a tribe called 'Wolf Sons') is aspects of wolf behaviour. These wild canines show dominance through posture, rather than using aggression and have immense stamina and strength. They follow a strict social status within their family groups. Bestowing these attributes onto a character is more of a subliminal connection, but one that still can seep through to the reader and hopefully create a more intimate relationship with the character.

How do you begin to build a character?

What tools do you use to define them?

Writing as ‘E S Moxon’, Elaine's debut historical fiction adventure ‘WULFSUNA’ was published January 21st, 2015 and is the first in her Wolf Spear Saga series. She is currently writing her second novel, set once again in the Dark Ages of 5th Century Britain, where the legendary Saga ensures a Seer and one named 'Wolf Spear' are destined to meet. You can find out more about Elaine’s novels on her website or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.
Elaine lives in the Midlands with her family and their chocolate Labrador.

~ ~ ~

Blood, betrayal and brotherhood.
An ancient saga is weaving their destiny.
A treacherous rival threatens their fate.
A Seer's magic may be all that can save them.


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Using Fact in Fiction

When writing historical fiction it is hard to escape the facts in history. Whole novels are penned on factual historical characters or factual events such as well-known battles. What I find personally enjoyable is when you can take a small fact and weave it into your fictional setting. I did this with my first novel 'WULFSUNA', where I used the name of a documented Saxon tribe of the 'Hwicce' as the basis of a fictional Romano-British settlement within the Welsh borders.

Historical documentation for the tribe of the Hwicce, which covered what is now parts of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, does not give much information prior to the 7th Century. Even the name has caused some contention that divides historians. There are some who believe the 'cc' to be pronounced hard like a 'k' while others continue to lean toward it being soft as the Italian 'cc' in cappuccino. For 'WULFSUNA' I chose an anglicised spelling that, at the time, best resembled the commonly held version of correct pronunciation (the soft sound). I added an 's' to the end and hence the 'Hwychas' of Prenhwychas were born.

The real Hwicce eventually became the most important shire of Mercia, the beginning of the powerful kingdom of the Midlands ruled by Penda. It is suggested this sub-kingdom was itself fully functional as a kingdom in its own right prior to its immersion into Mercia; an ecclesiastical centre run by a small Anglian warrior elite. (It is rumoured King Offa grew up among the Hwicce.) In the AD770s sub-kings were replaced with mere Ealdormen and the kingdom of the Hwicce was absorbed by Mercia, although it continued to thrive and in the 11th Century was said to have a 'tribal hidage' of 7,000 hides.

Reading parts of the Historia Brittonum for research, there is mention of the Hwicce tribe originally being a native Brytonic settlement, which later came under the rule of an unknown Angle - a shadowy figure with no name. The document ascribes to Germanic settlers in Deira prior to AD500 and then of course, there are the Foederati and disparate Germanic mercenaries left over by the Roman Empire's withdrawal from Britain in the early to mid 5th Century. This premise seemed to perfectly match my fictional Angle tribe of 'tha Eforas' (the Boars), the formidable enemies of the Wulfsuna. An idea began to form, as historical fiction played with historical fact. Here was a hint of realism that could be interwoven with my fiction.


Could my fictional settlement of Prenhwychas come under the rule of one of 'tha Eforas'? Could this Angle warrior allude to be the shadowy figure mentioned in the Historia Brittonum? If so, perhaps he would change the name of the settlement more fitting with his native tongue and I could use the alternative pronunciation with the hard 'k' to show this in my second Wolf Spear Saga. After all, Prenhwychas has a majority Christian population and is swift becoming surrounded by settling Germanic pagan tribes; mercenaries abandoned and unpaid by Rome and hungry for payment or retribution. Accepting Anglian rule would keep them safe, as this new leader would know the language and tactics of these so-called barbarian neighbours.

Well, to find out whether or not this transpires you shall have to wait until Wolf Spear Saga 2 is published, so I shall leave that speculation hanging! What I will say is that these fortuitous unions of facts and fiction help to bring readers deeper into your stories, tempting them with morsels of truth. We can only wonder at the reality behind the birth of the tribe of the Hwicce and how it became a sub-kingdom of a dynasty, ruled by Saxon Ealdormen several centuries later. Even if this is conjecture by early historians with no basis in fact, I love my Hwychas tribe and their fortified hilltop settlement with ramshackle Roman villa, honey-coloured stone walls and long-horned sheep. A former 'municipium' of Rome and thriving crofter community, where each roundhouse has its own field to cultivate, it has weathered civil unrest and betrayal by its magistrates. It is as real to me as any historical fact and hopefully is as real to my readers.

Writing as ‘E S Moxon’, Elaine's debut historical fiction adventure ‘WULFSUNA’ was published January 21st, 2015 and is the first in her Wolf Spear Saga series. She is currently writing her second novel, set once again in the Dark Ages of 5th Century Britain, where the legendary Saga ensures a Seer and one named 'Wolf Spear' are destined to meet. You can find out more about Elaine’s novels on her website or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.
Elaine lives in the Midlands with her family and their chocolate Labrador.

~ ~ ~

Blood, betrayal and brotherhood.
An ancient saga is weaving their destiny.
A treacherous rival threatens their fate.
A Seer's magic may be all that can save them.