Tracking the Prince: Rock of Cashel

Tracking the Prince: Rock of Cashel

Part 2 in a series featuring sites I visited in Ireland while researching my second novel, The Prince of Glencurragh. See Part 1.

img_1378After a cup of tea and a lemon bar in Kanturk, I proceeded east on the N72/N8 to the town of Cashel (from the Gaelic caiseal meaning stone fort), in County Tipperary. I’d been to Cashel with my family when I was 14 years old, to see the great Rock of Cashel: “a maze of architectural ruins spanning many centuries” according to the Irish Cultural Society.

I remembered little about this historical site except that the great cathedral was enormous, the structures intimidating, and all built on a rock promontory rising more than 300 feet high to overlook miles of lands that surrounded it. Impressive story, yes, and unforgettable architecture, to be sure, but now I needed specifics about its history, its layout and many more details.

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The view from The Rock of Cashel (author’s photo)

Centrally located in the southern half of Ireland, legend has it that the promontory was created when the Devil took a bite out of a nearby mountain and the great chunk of rock fell from his mouth. Structures at this location date back to the fourth century, and later the Rock of Cashel became the seat of the Munster kings, including Brian Boru who in the 10th century unified all of Ireland under his rule—until 1014 when Vikings killed his son and him at Clontarf.

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Cashel is also called St. Patrick’s Rock, where the saint converted a pagan king to Christianity around 450 AD

The round tower, built in 1101, was designed for protection from Vikings, with its door 12 feet off the ground and a ladder that could be pulled inside in case of attack. Cormac’s tiny chapel was started in 1127.

In the late 13th century, the site was deeded to the Catholic Church, and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was built on the foundation of an older one. After King Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church and established the Church of England, he appointed his own bishops, as did his daughter Queen Elizabeth in later years.

In the wind swept silence one can feel the spirit of the ancient chieftains, kings and bishops of Ireland who once lived and worked here.”
–James Conroy

After the English civil war when Parliament emerged victorious and King Charles I was beheaded, Oliver Cromwell brought his army to Ireland to crush the Irish rebellion once and for all. Starting in Drogheda in 1649, his march was brutal and bloody, and the cruelty of it remains controversial even today. Cashel was one of several villages sacked by Cromwell’s troops. When Catholic soldiers and town’s people sought refuge in the cathedral, Cromwell recognized no sanctuary, ordered his troops to pile turf around the cathedral and set it afire, killing all within.

img_1390img_1388Across the courtyard from the cathedral is the vicar’s choral, including kitchen and dining hall for the men who assisted with cathedral services. This has been restored to serve as a museum. The dining hall is quite beautiful with dark ceiling beams, leaded windows and window seats, trestle table and tapestry. This choral became the setting for the mid-point scene in The Prince of Glencurragh, when the earls of Clanricarde, Ormonde and Cork come together to meet with the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Thomas Wentworth, who quickly takes control. Where the roof joins the walls, the decorative under-purlins are carved angels who look down on all below, and whose facial expressions add their own silent commentary. img_1395

In the mid 18th century the Archbishop had the cathedral’s roof removed. Its lead content was considered valuable in that it could be used for ammunition, and alchemists of the time believed it possibly could be transformed into gold if the right process or catalyst was applied, because both gold and lead have similar properties. That controversial move left the site useful only as a tourist attraction. As this, however, the site is quite successful. Cashel is one of the top three centers of Irish culture.

For beautiful architecture, you may also want to visit the Dominican Friary tucked on the backstreets of the town of Cashel.

img_1373And a side note: While in Cashel I tried to visit Bothán Scór, a peasant cottage known locally as “Hanley’s,” that traces its history back to 1623. I hoped to see an accurate example of cottage life from that time. The tiny thatch-roofed cottage had a single window but it was blocked, preventing my view inside. You can see the cottage from the street, but according to the tourist office only one man has a key to the door, and they were unable to find him before I had to leave the town. This was the first of a few unfortunate missed opportunities during my travels. If you go and are able to see it, please tell me about it!

Thanks to The Irish Cultural Society of the Garden City Area; the Heritage and Tourist Office; Wikipedia; no thanks to the car park for Bailey’s Hotel!

jack6.140x9.210.inddAn heiress, a castle, a fortune: what could go wrong?

The Prince of Glencurragh is available in ebook, soft cover and hard cover from online booksellers.

https://books2read.com/u/4N1Rj6

http://www.amazon.com/Prince-Glencurragh-Novel-Ireland-ebook/dp/B01GQPYQDY/

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Joining the Historical Novel Reading Challenge

Having completed the manuscript for my second novel, The Prince of Glencurragh, which publishes this summer, I can take a break from my research reading to focus on the stack of historical novels that have been awaiting my attention for so long.

I’m joining the Historical Novel Reading Challenge (a little late), and will be posting my reviews here over the next nine months. I invite you to take up the challenge as well, for historical novels are the best reading for those of us who like to learn while we’re being entertained! Click the button below for more info on the challenge.

There are several reading levels from which to choose, and I am going with the Renaissance, 10 books, in that I’m starting late and also will begin research my next novel. Wish they had named a level after my favorite reading period, the Early Modern Age. (Yes, including the 17th century!)

I am right now reading M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between the Oceans, and then will review Heyerwood, a novel by my new author friend Lauren Gilbert. Then comes The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton.

After that, I’ll be working on my Goodreads Wish List. If you’ve read any of the books I’ll be reviewing, I’d love to see your comments here.

Happy reading!

SharavogueCover2Sharavogue is the award-winning novel of 17th century Ireland and the West Indies, available now on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. The prequel, The Prince of Glencurragh, will be available in summer 2016.

How the 17th century rocks your world

In reading last year’s historical fiction reader survey by M.K. Tod, I was shocked to learn that the 17th century ranks 7th among time periods readers are most likely to choose. Shocked, I say! Because the 17th century is just so fascinating.

In the words of J.P. Sommerville, University of Wisconsin history professor, the 17th century is “probably the most important century in the making of the modern world. It was during the 1600s that Galileo and Newton founded modern science; that Descartes began modern philosophy; that Hugo Grotius initiated international law; and that Thomas Hobbes and John Locke started modern political theory.”

See what I mean? Just little things like these happened in the 17th century. But wait, there’s more!

King_Charles_I_after_original_by_van_Dyck

Enter a caption. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“The Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and others, all struggled to maintain and extend colonies and trading-posts in distant corners of the globe, with profound and permanent consequences for the whole world,” Somerville wrote.

It was a time of tremendous turmoil and brilliant discovery:

  • The little ice age was particularly cold, creating chaos and famine
  • The Thirty Years War raged across Europe from 1618 to 1648
  • England’s bloody civil war defeated a monarchy
  • Science trumped religion for the first time to influence society
  • Agricultural and commercial changes paved the way for the Industrial Revolution

And there were sweeping changes that affect our lives even today:

Architecture. Inigo Jones (the Banqueting Hall) and Christopher Wren (St Paul’s Cathedral) introduced magnificent architectural designs in London and throughout England that remain beautiful and influential.

Banking. In England, instead of depositing gold in the king’s mint for safety — where he might confiscate it (as Charles I did in 1640) — London merchants deposited money with goldsmiths who gave them receipts and promised to pay on demand.

Food. People started eating with forks for the first time. England discovered bananas, pineapples, chocolate, coffee and tea.

Furniture. Chests of drawers became common, and Grandfather clocks popular, followed by a new arrival: the bookcase.

Medicine. Doctors learned how blood circulates around the body, and how to treat malaria with bark from the cinchona tree.

And of course, there were the scandals:

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    John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.And of course, how can we forget the scandal

    The murder of Buckingham

  • The execution of Charles I
  • The attempted assassination of Cromwell
  • The numerous mistresses of King Charles II
  • The indecent antics of the Earl of Rochester

Personally, I am digging deeply, fascinated by the greed, intrigue, rebellion, atrocities and resilience that took place in Ireland. Fascinating stories abound.

Yes, I am shocked that anyone might find another century more alluring. Not me.

 

SharavogueCoverEmbark on an adventure in Irish history — 17th century, that is, with Sharavogue, and my upcoming novel, The Prince of Glencurragh. Available on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and iBooks. Find out more at nancyblanton.com

 

Historical accuracy: It’s good to be right

Last year when I started promoting my historical novel Sharavogue, I got several wonderful and very positive reviews on amazon.com, but was looking to spread the news to other readers. I requested a review from another place my book was listed, Indiebound.com. Great people there, but unfortunately I was matched up with an anonymous reviewer who I can only believe is a bitter and lonely individual. I say that not just because I received a bad review, which I did, but because it was unreasonably bad.

Upon reading it, my hands began to shake. I had spent years carefully researching the time, the characters from that time, and all the details. It was the details this reviewer zeroed in on, questioning in a rather nasty tone the book’s title, whether a certain kind of tree was present at the time, and so on, including the basic opening sequence in the book in which Oliver Cromwell arrives in Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland. The reviewer claimed Cromwell had never traveled that far.

Cromwell in Ireland, a history of Cromwell's Irish Campaign ... with map, plans and illustrations

From Cromwell in Ireland, digitized for the British Library (public domain)

Now, since this is historical fiction, and it was at least plausible that Cromwell had visited the village in question, it does not really matter whether he actually did or not as long as I am clear in my author’s note about the places where I have stretched the facts in support of the story. But I had studied Cromwell and found that he did in fact visit Skibbereen. I made two mistakes here.

First, I had found an historical map (above) that actually tracked Cromwell’s progress in 1649, going through and past Skibbereen in southwest Cork. It gave me a premise to work from but, not realizing I might need it later I did not file a copy. If I’d had that copy I could have submitted it to the reviewer to request a revision in the review.

Which leads to my second mistake: engaging with the reviewer. Upon reading the erroneous review I sent back a message to Indiebound pointing out the errors in it based on my research. They sent my message to the reviewer for a response, and the result was a longer and even more erroneous and spiteful version of the original review. Indiebound passed it off as just a difference in opinion.

Happily for me anyway, while researching my new book I came across the map again, from the British Library no less, and saved it in my files.

Readers of historical fiction love a good story intertwined with fact, so that they can learn about historical  lives and times as they are entertained. I know, I am an avid historical novel reader myself. But as they used to say, tongue in cheek, when I was in journalism, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Do be as accurate as possible because you will have to defend some of the details. Don’t sweat a minor detail if it helps move the story forward or it doesn’t really matter. And don’t follow my example — keep copies of or document everything you find that might be useful to your story. You never know when it might come in handy. I won’t be sending this map to the reviewer at this late date, but I feel vindicated anyway. And that’s why I say…it’s good to be right!

SharavogueCover2Get a copy of Sharavogue to learn about Cromwell’s march in Ireland. When he gets to Skibbereen, the village is called “Skebreen” — a shortcut the locals used. Cromwell is real, his march is real, and Skibbereen is real. The protagonist and her companions are fiction. The bridge in question is fictionalized based on undocumented legend, and a good story for sure!

Roads into the past

KillarneyART162687Roads have always been important to civilizations, from narrow dirt pathways leading to water and food supply, to major super highways that support international trade and industry. In researching the past, knowing the roadways is key to understanding the way communities lived and operated. That’s why I was thrilled recently to discover the Down Survey Project online.

This is an amazing effort called the The Down Survey of Ireland Project, funded by the Irish Research Council under its Research Fellowship Scheme. The 17-month project was completed in March 2013. In short, the project combines digitized versions of surviving maps of Ireland from the 17th century (barony, parish and county level) with historical GIS (including various census and deposition sources) and georeferencing them with 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps, Google Maps and satellite imagery. Got that? Simple, right?

Well, no matter. If you have any interest at all in the history of Ireland, you will be amazed as I was to see the incredible public resource that this project has established.

Just as an example, for my book which begins in 1649, I can look up what landholders were in the area of my research, see exactly where their properties were located and what roads were in existence at the time. The old roads are represented as straight lines in the version I was able to bring up, and I doubt there were too many straight lines back then, but it does give me a general idea of locations and directions for ingress and egress. I’d say, for historical fiction it is a far better information source than my imagination.

Many thanks to the project team Micheál Ó Siochrú, David Brown and Eoin Bailey for creating this remarkable website. And thanks to Micheál Ó Siochrú also for his book God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland — another valuable resource to me.

For England’s roadways, historical novelist and blogger Patricia Bracewell has produced a four-part series on early English roads, featuring Watling Street, Ermine Street, the Fosse Way, and the Icknield Way. The series includes old maps and photos of present-day trails, and is featured on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog site.

Do you know of similar resources that might be helpful to authors? I’d love to know about them. Please comment.

SharavogueCover2Meantime: There are just three days left for my great giveaway of copies of Sharavogue on Goodreads. Sign up here!

Setting yourself apart for readers

Part 9 in the “How I found my snow path to Dingle” series

Picking up where I left off on my series about my writing process for Sharavogue, today I am focusing on “What makes your book different from other books like it?” This is a question that might come during a media interview or from an anyone who is considering reading your book. To answer, I had to do my homework. When I selected the time period for my story, I searched for books in the Cromwellian years, the Interregnum, and on the bookends of that period during the reigns of Charles I and Charles II, the Restoration.

SharavogueCover2Specifically during Cromwell’s time there were very few historical novels – I found only two, in fact — that take place in this turbulent period. I have since found several more but I think I am safe to say I have written of a time often overlooked by other authors. So, for readers like me who also like to learn about history as they read, it might be a good choice.  Sharavogue (the title of my novel but also the name of the plantation where the protagonist was indentured) also illuminates what life was like for slaves and indentured servants on the sugar plantations of the 17th century. These plantations were a boon to England’s economy but could not have been profitable without slave labor.

An intriguing  and distinguishing fact is that a colony of Irish planters developed on the island of Montserrat, and they too had to own slaves. The focus is on an Irish colony and perspective rather than an English one.

My style of writing is also quite different. I have used devices and structure to keep the book light, exciting and fast paced, but still packed with story, action and historical information — just enough, and interwoven as best I could so the story did not become a history lesson. My page count is under 300, not the tome of some historical novels. This required quite a bit of brutal editing, but I knew the costs of printing would make a larger book a difficult sell for an unknown author. Some people like this style — the book keeps them engaged so that they read it all the way through in a day or two. (One reader laughingly complained that it was my fault she did not get her Easter cooking done). But others have told me they would have liked more time for contemplation by the characters.

My hope was always that after finishing the book my readers would come away satisfied, entertained and informed. I also hoped to tell a good story about the Irish, who have held my imagination since childhood. A recent reviewer captured the gist of the story just as I had hoped:

“The Irish were no different, after all, than the English. Cruelty reigned. We were without justice, without recourse. We were without hope.” Fifteen-year-old Elvy Burke only wants to live up to her destiny. As the daughter of a great warrior, she dreams of being a leader of her people and a defender of her country. But Oliver Cromwell and his brutal army change her destiny. After cursing Cromwell to his face, she flees her village determined to find a way to kill Cromwell and free her land. She thinks that only Cromwell is brutal, but she discovers the hard way as she becomes an indentured servant in the West Indies, that the English do not have a monopoly on brutality. Elvy learns to survive and she finds kindness in unexpected places. She uncovers her own strengths as she fights her way back to her home in Ireland.

via Amazon.com: Customer Reviews: Sharavogue : A Novel.

This will be my last post in this series, unless any readers have additional questions that I will be most happy to answer. I look forward to any comments or suggestions for future posts. Best wishes and happy writing!

Is history relevant in a 140-character world?

Part 8 of my “How I found my snow path to Dingle” series

In this edition I’m focusing on another question asked about historical novels: “How is this relevant in today’s society?” Sharavogue takes place in the 1650s, far removed in both time and location to what most of us experience today. But it is based in fact, so an obvious answer is to refer to the quote attributed to philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Or the same with similar wording attributed to Winston Churchill and several others — all the way to Jesse Ventura. Then there is the ever-positive Kurt Vonnegut, who says “I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”

As one who loves history and historical fiction, I sometimes wonder why writers need bother with trying to prove history relevant. It is, because it is. History is fascinating and woven from the lives and experiences of everyone who lived before us. Most humans love a good story, no matter what century it comes from. When I read historical fiction I also love learning about what life was like at a different time, and what circumstances caused things to be that way, and why people made the choices they did. It always in some way informs my own life without the author having to draw direct connections.

HouseGirl I recently read House Girl by Tara Conklin, which flips back and forth between pre-Civil War slavery and a present-day lawyer trying to attribute works of art to the slave girl. The whole story is about connecting past to present, and parts of it were quite good, but I found the historical portions by far the most interesting and well written, and the present-day portions sometimes feeling forced and distracting.

I also recently stumbled across The Traveler’s Gift by Andy Andrews, a book someone had given my husband when he retired. It is basically a trip back in time to get seven philosophies for success, with the underlying message that each of us has a gift and the things we do have value and importance, whether we know it or not at the time. At one point we visit the Battle of Little Round Top where Col. Joshua Chamberlain’s desperate last-minute charge is key to the Union victory there, which ultimately leads to the end of war, the end of slavery in America, and the growth of a superpower that is able to do good in the world. An oversimplification to be sure, but a strong message about relevance.TravelersGift

In my book, I chose to stay in the 1650s. While the relevancy is not mapped for readers as in the books I’ve just described, I think it derives from the characters themselves and the struggles and obstacles they work to overcome. One of my readers talked to me at length about the character Tempest Wingfield, who becomes a plantation master only because he inherited when his father died. She related strongly to his internal ragings against a life he never chose, and the sorrows he felt nonetheless for not being a better son, honoring and loving his father while he had the chance. Other readers related strongly to the pain of the poor choices Elvy Burke makes that lead her down more difficult pathways. As noted in an earlier post, Sharavogue itself (the plantation on Montserrat) is a character, passively supporting the plantation lifestyle  in its own harsh existence.

Who has lost a loving parent and not felt deep regret? Who has not made poor choices in life and learned from them? And who has not witnessed injustices large or small and felt powerless to change them?

True relevance comes from the heart. But on a political level I must add that Oliver Cromwell (the bad guy in my book) remains today a relevant and controversial figure. I talked once with a British citizen who believed the commonwealth Cromwell established was the right and appropriate idea for his government, and the monarchy was irrelevant. Yet the Cromwell name is mostly associated with the 16th century Thomas who destroyed the Catholic monasteries, and the 17th century Oliver who slaughtered the Irish.

These stories and the jigsaw puzzle of factors that created them are impossible to deliver in a tweet or a Facebook post, and I worry about the lack of reading that could surely lead to the “forgetting” of history. (For example, I shudder when I hear women say they want to be stay-at-home moms, having lived through the time when women fought tooth-and-nail for the right to work and vote, and still struggle for equal pay.) But I take hope from something another writer once said to me: “People don’t care about history until they realize they have one.” And then it becomes all-important.

How memory informs story

Part 7 of my “How I found my snow path to Dingle” series

It’s amazing sometimes, where the pathways of thought will lead. This example comes from when I was researching currency in the 17th century. In my novel Sharavogue, a coin is a central icon throughout the story so I needed to find just the right one. There is much to be found about Elizabethan currency, but so far not as much that is specific to my time period.

sixpenceAnyway, the word “sixpence” set me off.  It reminded me of “Half a Sixpence,” the 1967 musical based on a novel by H.G. Wells and starring British pop star of that time, Tommy Steele. The title song began to play in my head. I knew it well because my parents went to this show when I was 11 years old. They came home from their date absolutely bubbling. They were happy. They were both singing. They bought the soundtrack and played it frequently. And when my father sang it was a grand thing – not that he was a great singer (he wasn’t bad), but it meant there was happiness and joy in our household. When he was happy, we could all be happy. The converse was also true.

But then I remembered that this kind of happiness went from occasional to rare and did not last. Over the next eight years things would tumble, my parents would divorce, and I would go off to college bewildered and distressed. It was the 60s and 70s – sex, drugs, rock & roll. Everything was bewildering. Our family of five exploded, each going our own ways, and our ties to each other became thin and fragile.

Then I began to consider my father’s viewpoint in all of this, which I believe was primarily one of disappointment. Probably from before he and my mother even married, he had set his sights on having a family and hoped to raise three boys. He must have imagined them as smart and good-looking, athletic – probably winning ribbons and trophies on the swim team, playing on high school and college football teams, and then more ribbons and trophies riding hunter-jumpers with power and finesse. Then those sons would go on to make fortunes in their professions and sire grandsons in their own image, establishing my father’s legacy forever.  Was it God’s sense of humor that instead that instead gave my father three sensitive girls who loved dolls and pretty clothes? (There is no reason now why a girl can’t do all the same things the boys could do, but in the those days, as the TV series Mad Men demonstrates, the options were different and doors were not so open for women.)

Then I arrived at the next thought layer, focusing on my father’s disappointment. And I always seem to come ‘round to this. None of his daughters were particularly athletic, and I’m sure he thought we were destined to become housewives, secretaries or school teachers rather than captains of industry. I focused on journalism, and I recalled one morning when I was visiting him while on break from college and we were having breakfast. He told me if he was ever to write his memoirs he would start it in a particular way. I can’t even remember now what way that was, because my own young and disappointed mind was preparing to lash out him. Instead of encouraging him to write his memoir and offering to help – which is what I would like to do today – I smirked and said “That’s probably what they would tell you not to do.”

I think the conversation pretty much ended after that, not that I recall the rest clearly. My punishment is that my father wrote no memoir, and when he died suddenly I realized (with the impact of a brick squarely between the eyes) that I knew almost nothing about him, his life as a young man, his dreams, his turning points. My husband says that if my father wanted to write his memoir, he would have written it – my stupid comment would not have had the power to stop it. But then, to take on such a task one has to be inspired. I think my father felt he did not have a legacy he could be proud of.

Before he died my father once said to me he had reached the top of the mountain and was now descending the other side. He did not like it. He had nothing to show for his life. I said, “You have three daughters.” This elicited barely a shrug.

He was disappointed. And I was disappointed. Perhaps it was not so much disappointment in his daughters, as I had until now believed. We know he loved us. We know in his own way he was proud of us. Maybe he just felt that he should have done more with his life, and so it was this, along with self-doubt and perhaps even contempt, that caused him not to write about it.

As I considered all of this, I realized the value for a writer is to follow the thought process through when memories come up, to discover some perspectives that might not have been clear before. It may be painful and so it is easier to just turn away and focus on something else, but when relived in the mind these thoughts and emotions inform the depths of story. My first novel was about the life of a man of my father’s time – I did not have my father’s history, so I simply made it up. It was a satisfying process, and I was able to inject much of the feeling I had experienced in our family life (write what you know, as they say).

I never published that novel. Someday I may return to it and reconsider. It is based on the history of his times, but it is still only a story. I will never really know what my father experienced, what he thought or how he felt. I wish even now I could give a half a sixpence for his thoughts.

In writing Sharavogue, what I perceived as his disappointment informed the feelings and character of Tempest Wingfield, master of the plantation on the island of Montserrat. He too had dreams and ideas that were never realized, because he was trapped in a destiny of his father’s making. It was his father’s dream to have a plantation, but his father’s death and other circumstances had determined this character’s unwanted fate, and so the actions and behavior are ruled by his anger and sorrow.

Meet My Villains

Part 6 in the series: How I found the snow path to Dingle

I once dated both a Roger and an Osborne, and neither proved to be very good dating material, but they did not reach the villainous status of this guy: Roger Osborne. Straight out of history, I did not need to invent him as the bad guy in Sharavogue. He showed up on his own.

But more about him in a moment. This is a post about the characters in the story, and particularly the villains who actually drive the action. In Sharavogue there are three villains. The first one we meet is Oliver Cromwell himself. Cromwell and his New Model Army have just defeated the Royalists in a bloody civil war. Cromwell has emerged as England’s new leader and has beheaded King Charles I in London. Now he comes to Ireland to cut down the Irish rebelling against English plantation on their soil.

Bust of Cromwell from the Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon.

Bust of Cromwell from the Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon.

Our heroine Elvy Burke confronts this powerful figure when he marches on her village. Cromwell had facial warts which helps add to his villainous image. It is Elvy’s hatred and vow to kill Cromwell that drives her forward and commands her decision making.

Through a series of events Elvy soon confronts the second villain of sorts, Sharavogue itself. The word Sharavogue comes from the Irish meaning “bitter place,” and it is the name given to a sugar plantation on the Island of Montserrat in the West Indies. The plantation system of the time depends on slave labor, and Elvy becomes an indentured servant struggling to survive against the customs, hard labor and the disease-ridden environment.

Because of her vow, Elvy cannot rest until she finds a way back to Cromwell to assassinate him. Thus, she seeks out the governor of Montserrat for assistance, and he is none other than Roger Osborne. In the 1650s, Osborne became governor of Montserrat when the original governor, Anthony Briskett, died. Briskett was revered for his vision and ability to engage and encourage fellow settlers and plantaton owners, and build a prosperous economy for the tiny island based primarily on tobacco crops. Briskett owned the best plantation on the island, married Osborne’s sister Elizabeth, and they had one son. Roger owned the adjacent plantation, but thought the grass was greener on Briskett’s side of the fence.

When Briskett died, Osborne’s palms must have itched to get his hands on Briskett’s plantation, but Elizabeth still wanted a husband and father for her young son. She married a Dutch planter and gentleman by the name of Samuel Waad.

What happens next is infamous for this period of history, and author Richard S. Dunn (Sugar and Slaves) lays it out like a play, listing all the characters by role. Picture Osborne, a massive spider, waiting for the perfect opportunity to weave his web and capture the fly.

Waad is a wealthy merchant and a bit of a dandy, but also very steeped in the rules of honor. When Osborne has Waad’s house guest arrested for beating a local tailor with his cane (what was the tailor’s offense, I wonder?), Waad is embarrassed and insulted. He writes a letter to Osborne that not only complains against the arrest, but goes on to call out Osborne’s corruption and whoring.

Waad is now ensnared in Osborne’s trap. Osborne is head of the militia, and calls the letter treason. Waad is arrested and, because it is a weekend, Osborne is able to call together only his cronies (and not the full militia) to determine Waad’s fate. The action is swift. Waad is executed by firing squad. Osborne takes over his estate and management on behalf of his nephew, who is Waad’s heir.

This story is true. I only wish I’d been able to find an image of Osborne to see if his countenance shows his personality. His interactions with Elvy are imagined and highly likely, but you’ll have to read the book to find out more!

Choosing a place in time

Part 3 in the series: How I found the snow path to Dingle

pirate ship1670As noted in my last post, my research was leading me to believe I had a book on my hands, or at least I hoped so. I had already finished my first novel but it was lengthy and meandering, and though dear to my heart because it was written as a tribute to my father, I knew it was not marketable as it was and could not see a clear way to fix it. I had already started attending writers’ conferences to learn, and found them both helpful and destructive.

In particular, I loved the Surrey International Writers Conference in British Columbia, where I met Diana Gabaldon (I’ve attended several times), and the Historical Novel Society where I met Margaret George, among others. I did not care for the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference in Seattle, where the speakers’ attitudes seemed to be “we’re published, you’re not and never will be.” When I sat down for lunch and realized everyone at my table had the same impression, I knew I’d never go back to that one. The Algonkian Writers Confererence at Half Moon Bay was limited to 15 people who had achieved a certain level of proficiency. I found it intimate, individualized, bonding, positive and instructive.

Among the things I learned was that as a new writer, you need to keep your word count down, because publishers are less likely to make an expensive investment in a new writer, and thick books are costly to print. The recommendation was between 120,000 and 150,000 words. It is tricky with historical fiction, because there is more to explain and describe, but it can be done. (As an example, Sharavogue comes in at just over 117,000 words and the printed book is 292 pages.)

I also learned, as we all know already, you must hook the reader with your first line, your first paragraph, your first page. There are certainly books I’ve read that did not hit this mark, but I think unless you have a friend in the publishing industry or something else up your sleeve, it’s something to strive for. Think of an agent or editor sitting at a desk surrounded by stacks of manuscripts. He or she will be looking for a reason to eliminate some. Don’t give them one. I rewrote my openings countless times. (How do you know when it is done? As another author said recently, you just have to write from the heart and hope for the best.)

At these conferences, editors and agents often speak on panels or you can learn what they are looking for during 10-minute one-on-one sessions booked in advance. I remember hearing one agent say enough already with the Tudor period. I saw that comment repeated on another agent’s website. So in part that’s the reason I decided to look for a time different than Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn or Elizabeth I. I decided to choose a time not often covered in books (the road less traveled, if you will); a time very important in Irish history that spoke to my own Irish heritage. And, one of my goals would be to help illuminate this new time period, because I believed readers of historical fiction wanted, just as I do, to learn about history as they read a good story. From Diana Gabaldon, while falling in love with Jamie I also learned about the battle at Culloden and the Scottish rebellion against English rule.

Of course, the danger in choosing a different time period is the agents and editors also don’t know it, so they don’t know how to sell it. I deeply admire Hilary Mantel who, with her brilliant books Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, found a way to approach the Tudor period from a completely different viewpoint: that of the infamous Thomas Cromwell.

I chose Oliver Cromwell, distantly related in the next century whose name still stirs hate among the Irish and admiration among some English, but definitely controversy among all. And I did choose this period, the Irish rebellion of 1641 through Cromwell’s march of 1649, but it also chose me. Once I focused, books and articles came to me that I had not really searched for, and then because of those I was drawn to other resources that I sought relentlessly for months. Pieces began to come together like I big, messy jigsaw puzzle.

All good stories must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Fairly early on, I knew the beginning of my book, and then I knew how it would have to end. I really had no idea what would happen in the middle. It took years of research and discovery, but slowly the middle began to take shape and fill in. On that day when I realized the two ends would actually meet, the elation was magnificent!