I read slightly more than eighty books last year. Here are the ones I enjoyed the most and recommend to you. (A) are adult books and (MG) are middle grade books, intended for children grades 3-7. Of course, I recommend them to everyone.
Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, and Pardonable Lies, all by Jacqueline Winspear (A)
In 2019, I discovered the Maisie Dobbs historical mystery series. I’ve only read the first three because the waiting list at my library is long. Maisie was raised in poverty in London, but becomes the protegee of famed detective/psychologist Maurice Blanche. She leaves her training to work as a nurse in WWI. The first book begins with her first case after returning from the war. She is broken in ways that become clear little by little. I love the way she solves cases. Part mystery, part history, part psychology, part mysticism, all enjoyment.
Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard (MG)
Robinson lives with her grandfather, who has taught her about cars and baseball and being more like Jackie Robinson (her namesake). Still, spunky Robbie can’t seem to avoid getting into fights at school. With her grandfather’s memory becoming more and more faulty, Robbie must make some difficult decisions. A beautiful story about family and being true to yourself.
Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (A)
This is the sequel to Russell’s novel, Sparrow, in which a party of scientists are sent by the Catholic church to a planet with two sentient species. See my review of Sparrow here.
This follow-up is brilliant. Although it could probably be read on its own, I recommend reading them in order. Character development and world building are superb. They are fast-paced, exciting reads, and Russell delivers philosophical questions that force a reader to think deeply.
At the Water’s Edgeby Sara Gruen (A)
World War II may be dragging Americans and the world to battle, but for wealthy New Yorkers Madeline, Ellis and Hank, life is one big, drunken party. When Ellis offends his father and gets his money cut off, he drags his wife and friend to Scotland to find the Loch Ness monster, something his father failed at years before. Their time in Scotland is nothing like they expect, and Maddie finds herself left at an isolated inn. What they learn about themselves and each other makes for a riveting read. Plus, it takes place in Scotland, and 2019 was My Year of Loving Scotland.
Unshelteredby Barbara Kingsolver (A)
When Willa’s magazine goes under and her husband is let go from the university where he’s taught for years, the two middle-aged, did-everything-right people find themselves without anywhere to live. Fortunately, they inherit an aunt’s house– but the roof leaks, the foundation is cracked, they have no money, and then their adult children show up, needing help. In a parallel, historical story, we learn about another family who lived in/near the house: an honest science teacher, his social-climbing family, and a renegade female scientist. Being the same age as Willa, I felt her pain and confusion in so many ways. The historical story, based on actual people and places is fascinating. This book takes a hard look at the reality of America today, but it isn’t hopeless. Parts are funny, and the characters are incredibly interesting.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells (A)
This science fiction novel is told by a relatively inexpensive “murder bot” hired by people and companies for protection, especially when exploring other planets, etc. The bot spends most of its down time watching entertainment channels, so it has an interesting take on human emotions and intelligence. This is a fast-paced thriller that is funny and surprising. I just discovered that there are more to The Murderbot Diaries series and will be downloading them soon!
A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier (A)
Chevalier is one of the best historical novelists writing today. She can make things to which you never gave a second thought fascinating and exciting. In this novel, it is canvas embroidery (needlepoint) and bells rung by pulling a cord, as done in Winchester Cathedral. I reviewed this book for the Historical Novels Society. You can read that review here.
Lady of the Seven Sunsby Tinney Heath (A)
Giacoma dei Settesoli, the lady of the title, was a noblewoman who lived in Rome in the thirteen century and was a follower of Saint Francis of Assisi. This novel tells her story, as well as shedding light and insight on the lives of her family, St. Francis, Clare of Assisi, thirteenth century Rome, and the delightful (and probably imaginary) servants of Giacoma’s household. The story is rich in detail and life; it is inspirational, educational, and gratifying.
The Overstory by Richard Powers (A)
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began this long novel. The early chapters appeared to be short stories, unrelated, except that each of them featured a tree—in some of the stories the trees were important, in others, barely mentioned. In the middle section, the characters from the stories come together, in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s, when activists sat in trees and peacefully (and some times violently) battled lumber companies to protect forests. The final section shows the characters today. This is a poor summary of an incredible story. I learned SO much about trees and life and the world. The Overstory is an incredibly important book that I wish everyone could read. I realize the length will turn off some—but I hope many of you will give it a chance. It changed my life because it changed how I see the world.
In the Footsteps of Sheep by Debbie Zawinski (A)
A friend gave me this book shortly after I returned from my Scotland vacation. The author decided to take a “journey around Scotland spinning and knitting the fleece of the Scottish sheep breeds in their native haunts.” She kept a diary, took pictures, and gathered fleece from remote areas in Scotland and its islands. In the rain and the cold, Zawinski camps, walks, boats and makes somewhat dangerous decisions to get her fleece. A fun, interesting, educational travel story—with knitting patterns.
The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin (MG)
Caitlin Breen is the new kid in a small school in rural Vermont. On the first day, her classmates are shocked to discover that Paulie Fink is no longer at their school. Caitlin hears many stories about Paulie and eventually the students decide to have a reality-show-type competition to find “The Next Great Paulie Fink,” with Caitlin as judge. During the school year, their teacher explains Plato’s allegory of the cave, and the book makes much of this philosophical dilemma. Brilliantly constructed, this is a winner.
The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman (MG)
Viji’s father has always beat her mother, but when he hits Viji, the eleven-year-old girl runs away with Rukku, her older, mentally-challenged sister. They take a bus to the city of Chennai, in India, and find a “home” on a crumbling bridge with two boys, who teach them how to survive while living on the streets. The story is told in the second person, Viji talking to Rukku. An exciting, heart-breaking, important story.
The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (published as Sophia’s Secret in the UK) is one of my all time favorite books. When we decided to holiday in Scotland, I knew I would want to see Slains Castle and walk in the steps of protagonists Sophia and Carrie.
My husband and I spent two nights in Cruden Bay at St. Olaf’s Hotel, the inn and restaurant that fictional author Carrie visits for fish and chips. It was also the hotel where actual author Susanna Kearsley stayed when she was researching The Winter Sea. I neglected to take a picture of the hotel, but I did take this cell-phone photo from my room. The view of Slains Castle out my window had me hopping up and down.
Slains Castle was every bit as incredible as I thought it would be. The castle features prominently in The Winter Sea, and it is also listed as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Here are some pictures of us exploring the ruins.
In Kearsley’s novel, Carrie and Sophia go for many walks along the cliffs above the North Sea. My husband and I took a bus to the small town of Boddam, located seven miles north of Cruden Bay, and walked back. We took the Eastern Coastal footpath, part of which included the well-kept trail of the Longhaven Cliffs Wildlife Reserve. It rained for most of our walk, but we anticipated the Scottish weather and were well prepared with good raincoats. Even with the clouds, the views were spectacular.
I was especially excited to see the Bullers of Buchan, an interesting geologic formation that Carrie and Graham visit in the book.
We had a wonderful time in Scotland, and my favorite part was our walk along the eastern coast. Surprisingly, many of the guides about visiting Scotland make no mention of this area. It can be our little secret–or, perhaps we should say we discovered Sophia’s Secret.
To celebrate our 25 years of marriage, my husband and I traveled to romantic Scotland. Although we spent about two weeks there, we did not visit many places. Rather than running around and seeing everything, we like to get a feel for what it would be like to live in the places we visit.
We spent 5 days in Inverness, the “capitol” of the Highlands. We stayed at the Bluebell House, a lovely bed and breakfast on Kenneth Street. Inverness is more town than city, and in our time here we learned to get around without a map and find our favorite places. I explored some residential neighborhoods to discover where the protagonist of my next novel would live and walked frequently along and across the River Ness, where some exciting events will take place.
Here are some pictures of the lovely Inverness:
As you can see, not your normal tourist photos. Still, there were some tourist-y type things we had to do. We visited Culloden Battlefield and the Clava Cairns.
We also visited the Isle of Skye, which has exploded with tourists–so much so, that the roads cannot handle the increased traffic. Potholes and the smallness of the lanes make for dangerous driving. Fortunately, we booked a Happy Tours guide who took us along Loch Ness and to the Isle of Skye, so we didn’t do any driving that day.
From Inverness, we visited Pitlochry and Aberdeen, then traveled to Cruden Bay and Slains Castle, the setting of one of my favorite novels.
My next blog post will be about that visit and what it is like to see places you’ve read about in a favorite story.
It has been a long time since I last posted on this blog. I’ve been busy! For the past year, I was much busier at school than normal, teaching more classes and doing a lot of committee work. Thank goodness for the summer!
In a few days, my husband and I will be visiting Scotland! I’ve wanted to visit this country for a long time. Last year was our 25th anniversary and we waited up to travel this summer. While there, we will be seeing sites, getting to know the natives, visiting key scenes in Outlander and The Winter Sea, and I will be doing research for my next novel.
When the trip is over, I will share pictures and talk about the trip here. If you are facebook and/or instagram friends with me, you will likely get more recent updates and pictures. If you aren’t social media friends with me, please friend me–or wait until I post another blog to learn about my Scotland adventures.
Today I’m welcoming historical novelist Genevieve Graham. Her first international best seller Under the Same Sky, and its two companion novels, were set in Scotland and the colonies, but she has since found her niche in writing Canadian historical fiction.
Elizabeth: Welcome, Genevieve. Can you tell us more about your most recent novel, Tides of Honour ?
Genevieve: Thanks, Elizabeth! I’m very happy to be with you here today, and I would love to tell you about Tides of Honour. Who doesn’t love to talk about their baby?
The story is about Danny Baker, an Eastern Shore fisherman here in Nova Scotia. Like so many other boys, Danny heads overseas in 1914 with no idea of the nightmare he’s about to experience. Life in the trenches steals men’s humanity, suffocates hope beneath blood and mud – except just when the horrors of war are becoming too much for Danny, along comes Audrey. The last thing he had ever expected was to meet the love of his life in France. They fall in love via dirt-smudged, water-stained letters, and Danny asks Audrey to marry him, to become his wife in Canada. Even after he is gravely wounded she is determined to be with him, and she begins her own voyage – meeting suffragettes and working as a munitionette – on her way to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Elizabeth: That sounds like a fascinating journey for both of them. I imagine for many love was the only way to survive the nightmare of war.
Genevieve: Very true. But often people change along the way, and as soon as Audrey arrives in Canada it becomes apparent that Danny’s a different man from the one she met in France. The war has taken so much more than his leg. He is tortured by memories and by the fact that his disability now renders him unable to do things he’s always done. Misery consumes him, makes him volatile and unpredictable, and he turns to the bottle for escape. With no other option, Audrey leaves him, and he is devastated.
The next morning two ships collide in the Halifax Harbour, and the explosion destroys most of the city. Almost two thousand people are killed and thousands more are maimed and/or blinded. Danny is jerked back to reality and joins the reconstruction efforts, but he cannot find the answer to the only question that matters: where is Audrey?
Elizabeth: And we’ll have to read the book to find the answer! Readers should also check out the beautiful book trailer for Tides of Honour. How much historical fact is woven into the story?
Genevieve: A lot. My goal is to breathe life back into real historical moments, and in order to do that I basically write the history and weave fictional characters/stories through the reality. History creates stories and shapes people, so my characters have to grow from within the facts, not the other way around.
Elizabeth: What does your writing process look like?
Genevieve: The spark is lit when I am intrigued by an event in Canadian history. The flame rises as I recognize that one specific moment does not stand on its own. It is surrounded, often caused, by others, and all of those things play a part in the creation of my story and characters. I am not a historian, so when I research I am teaching myself something for the first time, and I approach my writing from that perspective: my characters learn as I do. When I wrote Tides of Honour, I started by learning the basics of the Halifax Explosion, watching WW1 movies, and looking through websites on basic history, trends, fashions of the time. I need to feel as if I’m there. The creative process starts when I’m struck by an imagined scene, and that’s when I finally write. I often can’t get farther than a few pages before I have to stop to investigate something, and often that leads me down the rabbit hole and I eventually have to – reluctantly – rein myself back in. Through the course of writing a book, I always write tens of thousands of words about things that will never make it into the eventual book, but every word is vital to what I’m learning.
Elizabeth: I see you were also an editor for a number of books.
Genevieve: Yes, I ran my own editing business for about three years. Over that time I edited more than seventy books of all different genres. Editing had its pros and cons. On the positive side, it paid the bills, and it opened me up to all different styles of writing. Working with other writers was a challenge I usually enjoyed, and the end result could be truly rewarding. I enjoyed helping a writer transform an okay book to a good book, or a good book into an excellent one. I also loved to help writers learn and hone their craft. Unfortunately, I found it impossible to work on my own writing while I was editing for other people. Their styles and “voices” found their way into my work, and I inevitably had to rewrite my stories. In the end I had to take the plunge and leave editing behind so I could focus on my own books.
Elizabeth: What are you working on now?
Genevieve: Simon & Schuster Canada will be releasing my next novel, Promises to Keep, in April 2017. Again it is set in Nova Scotia, but back in 1755 the area wasn’t called that. The people called it Acadia. It tells the story of young Amelie Belliveau, one of the more than ten thousand Acadians who were ripped from their homes by the British, packed onto leaking ships, and sent nowhere in particular. Many people will know about the Acadians who became “Cajuns” in Louisiana, but my characters had a different fate in store. The romantic complication in this story stems from the fact that one of the British soldiers is a Scot who had survived Culloden. He bears no love for the British, but he is a good, honest man. If he is to save Amelie, he must commit the sin of treason.
Elizabeth: I can’t wait to read it! Can you tell us more about yourself?
Genevieve: I’m a classical musician by training, but I have dabbled in lots of different things through my life, from advertising to fundraising for the Humane Society to teaching piano and editing. I never planned to be a writer, and I feel incredibly lucky that I am able to do what I do. I began writing after I’d finished reading the Outlander series about seven times because I wanted to see if I could actually do it. About five years after I typed my first exploratory pages, Penguin US published my internationally bestselling 18th century Scottish “MacDonnell trilogy”: Under the Same Sky,Sound of the Heart, and Somewhere to Dream.
My husband and I will soon become empty-nesters, which is a difficult concept to face! Both our amazing daughters will be attending Dalhousie University in the fall (our eldest is already there), and we’re excited for them. They are both brilliant and ready to explore the world, and we can’t wait to see what directions they choose. My husband and I are comforting ourselves with the concept of travel … so many places to see! For now we’re just happy to bundle up with a good book in front of the fireplace along with our little white dog, Murphy. When the snow melts a little we’ll see more of our friendly flock of heritage chickens as they scratch and peck past my office window.
We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:
Elizabeth: Coffee or tea?
Genevieve: Tea … or Coffee with Baileys.
Elizabeth: Ocean or mountain?
Genevieve: Mountain. I live by the ocean now, but I miss the Rockies.
Elizabeth: Hiking or shopping?
Genevieve: Shopping. But mostly reading.
Elizabeth: Violin or piano?
Genevieve: Oboe! Ha! Actually, I play piano and my daughter plays violin. As long as it’s classical, I’m happy.
Elizabeth: Mystery or fantasy?
Genevieve: Either … if it’s believable.
Elizabeth: Darcy or Heathcliff?
Elizabeth: Love scene or death scene?
Genevieve: Love, of course, though it can be heartrendingly beautiful to pen a poignant death scene.
There are book trailers for each of Genevieve’s books. I just love book trailers!
For more about Genevieve and her books, visit the sites below.
Today I welcome Louise Turner to my series of author interviews. Louise is both a historical novelist and an archeologist. Her novel, Fire and Sword, is set in fifteen century Scotland.
Elizabeth: Welcome, Louise. Can you tell us more about Fire and Sword?
Louise: It’s based on real historical events that occurred in the west of Scotland in the late 15th century, during the early reign of King James IV. James arguably went on to become Scotland’s greatest Renaissance king, but his reign began in typical early Stewart fashion with a bit of skulduggery. His father, King James III, was very unpopular because he made a mess of the economy and surrounded himself with ‘evil counsellors.’ Things came to a head in the spring of 1488 and by June of that year, there was an armed rebellion that ended in a battle which saw James III murdered and his son made king in his place.
It’s the very turbulent events which unfolded during the aftermath that form the focus of both Fire and Sword, and its follow-up, The Gryphon at Bay, which will be published next spring by Hadley Rille Books. The story of Fire and Sword revolves around the trials and tribulations of John Sempill of Ellestoun, who fights for James III and finds himself having to rebuild his fortunes following the regime change. Historically speaking, he’s quite an obscure local figure who merits just a brief mention in the wider story of Scotland’s past, which meant there really wasn’t much to go on when I started to explore his life story.
Elizabeth: So what inspired you to write about John Sempill in particular?
Louise: I’ve lived in west Renfrewshire all my life: the landscape, the history and the archaeology is very familiar to me, and it’s an area which I think should be more widely appreciated. When I first explored the idea of writing a historical novel, it seemed obvious to look close to home for inspiration, and since the Sempills were one of our prominent local families they seemed an obvious place to start my research.
It was while reading one well-known local history source (The Parish of Lochwinnoch by Elizabeth Anderson), I discovered an intriguing paragraph which related how, only a few years after John Sempill’s father died during the battle fighting for James III, Sempill himself enjoyed an astounding change in fortunes and was made a Lord of Parliament. I wanted to find out more about the circumstances behind his dramatic change in circumstances.
I soon discovered an intriguing link between John Sempill of Ellestoun and one of the more notorious local characters at the time, Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie, who was one of James IV’s most loyal followers and who was appointed to the Privy Council in the early years of the new reign. The events which unfolded clearly demonstrated that Renfrewshire and Ayrshire, normally thought of as cultural and political backwaters well away from the intrigues and powerplay of Edinburgh, were the scene of pivotal events which helping secure James IV upon his throne.
Right from the start, I found Sempill a fascinating figure. He was definitely ahead of his time: in a world where disputes were settled at the point of the sword and where feuding was the widely accepted method of finding justice, he seemed determined to keep the peace and put his faith in the legal system. He was a builder: he left a secure legacy for his descendants and he was fond of the finer things in life, too. He was a patron of the arts, and he seems to have been a pious man: he founded a Collegiate church and ‘sang school’ (i.e. a school for choristers). Perhaps this was his most enduring legacy: its ruins still survive and can be visited by the general public.
It was only at a comparatively late stage that I discovered I’m not the first writer to have found my curiosity piqued by the Semple family! In a literary sense, John Sempill’s family punches well above its weight, with the Sempills/Semples having achieved notoriety in literary circles for their place in the work of the celebrated historical fiction author Dorothy Dunnett.
Elizabeth: How much historical fact is woven into your story?
Louise: I’d say it’s about 20% fact, 40% educated conjecture and 40% fiction. The framework, everything which underpins the story, is fact, and I populate the narrative was as many recreated historical characters as possible. It’s the interaction of these various individuals which drives the narrative, and recreates history. Or at least, that’s the theory…
Elizabeth: What does your research process look like?
Louise: Very long, and tortuous! I approach historical novel writing in a multi-layered way, because my final aim is not to tell a story, but to experience a story. My first task is to read up on the literature, and listen to the music, so I can get an impression of the way they might have been thinking through the metaphors that dominated their thinking and language. For my late medieval gentry and nobility, this includes both Biblical and religious analogies, some Classical thinking as well as chivalric ideals (we’re in the era which saw the increasing popularity of King Arthur and his nights of the round table) and more mundane practical things like hunting. And of course I’m writing a story set in medieval Scotland, so I have to balance the fact that the characters communicate in Middle Scots (think Rab C Nisbet meets Geoffrey Chaucer) with the needs of the reader.
Then there are the physical and material aspects of their lives, which I explore from the top down, so to speak. What was the physical environment like at the time, including settlement distribution, natural environment, agriculture and architecture? And what was the material culture like? This covers a vast range of topics, from textiles to horse harness to weaponry to the tableware that graced their boards each night. In that respect, a lot of my research was archaeological, as opposed to historical. I’ve worked on a few medieval urban excavations in the west of Scotland myself, so that provided a good starting point, and I’d also made a few useful contacts in my profession who were more than willing to help point me in the right direction.
Building the actual story was also quite a challenge. In this case, I wanted to establish what was happening on the national scale, and to figure out how the information derived from local historical sources fitted into this wider picture. The local sources were all rather blinkered, going along the lines of ‘they were all a shocking bunch of angry lawless men who kept on fighting and feuding with each other.’ The overall impression I got was that the west of Scotland was like a late medieval version of America’s Wild West! But when I juxtaposed these local feuds against the wider political landscape I discovered that most of the unrest unfolding here in Renfrewshire had their roots in grievances that stemmed from decisions made much further afield in Edinburgh. That’s when things began to get interesting!
As this narrative started to take shape, I was creating a network of characters, based on real individuals who often little more than references in the historical record. To make these characters authentic, I mapped their life-paths – what age were they when the action took place, who were their parents, who did their children marry, how many children did they have both inside and outside wedlock, and what distinguishing actions did they performed in their life, whether it was being charged and acquitted of murder, or serving on the Privy Council or building a church or whatever- and at that point I could start to see how they interacted with one another in the ‘real’ historical world. The final test was when I was able to set them loose in the scenario history had created for them and see how they reacted in these circumstances. Thankfully, things mirrored the (known) historical reality rather well!
Elizabeth: What is your writing process?
Louise: The first draft usually slips out very easily, but at this stage, everything’s quite skeletal. I often hear the conversations before I see the actions and the reactions of those doing the talking. Then once I start to ‘see’ what people are doing, I’ll pan out and take in more of the surroundings, ‘re-writing for atmosphere,’ so to speak.
I usually spend a lot of time editing, to get things just right. Then the final stage is like trimming a bonsai. I clip, clip, clip away at all the excess growth (usually going through the manuscript three or four times), until I have a tight paced narrative which springs along at a sprightly trot (though I don’t believe in pushing it on into a gallop).
I’m a firm believer in sending the finished manuscript on to my publisher when I genuinely think I cannot do anything more to improve it. This does not mean it doesn’t need any editing – of course it does, because every piece of writing benefits from being scanned by a fresh pair of eyes – but it certainly eases everyone’s workload!
Elizabeth: Tell us about your short story, “The Lay of the Lost Ministrel.”
Louise: Originally intended as a short introduction to Fire and Sword, it proved really interesting to write. I wanted to explore the events in the novel from a totally different viewpoint character, but one who was, nonetheless, integral to the action.
William Haislet was an excellent choice because he’s always there or thereabouts, providing John Sempill of Ellestoun with a rather stoical supporting presence whatever the circumstances. At the same time, he keeps his own counsel and I always found him quite reserved and unassuming. Actually getting into his head was quite an adventure: I’d always known that he was English, and that he’d originally lived an itinerant life before marrying a local girl and settling down to life at Ellestoun. He also gets on extremely well with the novel’s irascible anti-hero, Hugh Montgomerie, and the exact nature of this relationship was something I was able to pursue further. The odd thing is: I always tend to write short stories in a completely different way, and The Lay of the Lost Minstrel was no exception. It was much more literary in tone (the need to drive the narrative onwards was less of an issue, so I indulged myself a little…) and it was written in the present tense so I was quite literally seeing the world through William’s eyes and ears.
Although William’s a fictional character, even he has his origins in historical fact. John Sempill kept a talented harpist named John Haislet amongst his retinue, who played to James IV on the king’s visit to Ellestoun in the early 1500s. He was also one of 574 named individuals ‘put to the horn’ with William 2nd Lord Sempill (John’s son) in the 1520s, following riots in Edinburgh which resulted in the death of a Dutchman. William’s the fictional father of John Haislet, who himself appears briefly in my second novel and who will I suspect become more prominent in the future!
Elizabeth: What are you working on at the moment?
Louise: The follow-up to Fire and Sword (The Gryphon at Bay, mentioned earlier) will be published next spring, and in the meantime I’ve taken a short sabbatical from historical fiction to write a historical fantasy called A Black Ship Into Hades. It’s a time travel novel where a young man from Ancient Sparta finds himself brought to modern (i.e 21st century) Wiltshire. So many time travel novels feature young heroines from the modern world traveling back to a Past which is in so many ways simpler and more appealing than the Present. I wanted to turn this trope on its head to some extent: Lysander, the hero of my novel, knows he’s better off in the modern world (for all its faults) and there’s no way he’s going back. He is, in essence, seeking political asylum from the Past.
I’m having great fun writing it because, once again, it requires an awful lot of research because I want my Spartans to be as authentic as possible. Which means that they come across as slightly strange, and slightly alien, while at the same time remaining recognizably human. And I get to pay homage to all sorts of archaeological sites and schools of thoughts and even artifacts. It is becoming, I suppose, my archaeological novel…
Elizabeth: What have you read recently that you feel passionate about?
Louise: I spent the last couple of years grappling with Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, and finally I’m hooked on Dunnett. I can’t say it was love at first sight: I’d read Niccolo Rising twice and was halfway through Spring of the Ram before Dunnett’s writing finally clicked, but now I’m finally a convert. I don’t always agree with how she portrays the Scotland of James III and I’m irritated at the suggestion that the root of Scotland’s woes at the time was a brilliant and mischievous Flemish merchant, but the way she uses history to weave a story is magnificent and her breadth of knowledge in terms of what’s happening on the world-wide stage at the time is staggering. Next year, I plan to batter into the Lymond Chronicles, which will be another epic reading task….
Elizabeth: Can you tell us more about yourself?
Louise: I’m an archaeologist by training: I work for a medium-sized commercial archaeology company in the west of Scotland. This is really quite beneficial for my writing, and a bit strange at times because sometimes these two facets of my life overlap. I’ve worked as an archaeologist in locations which feature in my books, and I often write about places and people I’ve stumbled across at work.
Though medieval archaeology was something I discovered rather late – I specialized in prehistory and the study of Bronze Age metalwork hoards for my Ph.D. research. I now spend much of my working life working with finds, in particular medieval and modern ceramics, and I also do a lot of historic building recording and industrial archaeology, too. Castles are a regular destination these days, and what’s more of a bonus is that quite often I find myself working with conservation architects and incredibly talented stonemasons. It’s always very rewarding to be taking part in a historic building’s long-term survival and preservation.
And when I’m not working or writing, I enjoy gardening, horse-riding and hill-walking, so I’m never bored, or at a loss for something to do.
We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:
Elizabeth: Coffee or tea?
Louise: Coffee, please. Almost every time. Except perhaps when it’s a hot and sunny afternoon, in summer…
Elizabeth: Ocean or mountain?
Louise: Ooh, mountain. Definitely mountain. I love the Lake District, and the Scottish Highlands, and the Welsh mountains too. A trip to the Lakes and a bit of fell-walking does wonders to invigorate me! Scottish mountains, however, I prefer to admire from afar. I went walking in Glencoe a few years back and realised, during an ascent of the unforgiving Bidean Nam Bien, that I’d finally met my hill-walking nemesis. I didn’t quite reach the summit, but at least I got down safely, without the aid of a helicopter…
Elizabeth: Hiking or shopping?
Louise: See above – I love my hill-walking, I think there’s nothing quite like venturing up on to the fell tops in the Lake District and getting a completely new perspective on the world. I don’t suppose I collect summits, but I do collect views! Every fell top is slightly different, and I’ve walked up so many fells now that they all seem like old friends. And they have wonderful names. Like Helvellyn, and Blencathra, and Ullscarf, and Thunacar Knott. And Barf. Let’s not forget Barf…
I’m not entirely impervious to shopping, though. I do like garden centres. And I love bookstores, too…
Elizabeth: Violin or piano?
Louise: Can I play Devil’s Advocate here and say ‘French Horn?’ I was very musical in my youth. I played piano, violin, viola and French Horn with varying degrees of competence and seriousness. The French Horn was always my favourite, by a long chalk, and at one point in my life I was planning to become a professional orchestral musician. Before I discovered archaeology. Though if I really must choose between the two, I do have a soft spot for the piano, too.
Elizabeth: Mystery or fantasy?
Louise: Most definitely fantasy. I’m a Tolkein fan, and I was brought up with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series.
Elizabeth: Darcy or Heathcliff?
Louise: Heathcliff. He wins hands down. All that smouldering! But here’s the caveat – I’d rather he stayed safely confined within the pages of a book. I mean, having to put up with such a high maintenance Significant Other in real life would be just impossible, wouldn’t it?
Elizabeth: Love scene or death scene?
Louise: Hard to say, really. I’m inclined to say ‘death scene,’ because that’s where you strip your characters right back and make them confront their own mortality. It’s not really the character who’s just kicked the bucket who faces all these problems – it’s those left behind. They have to renegotiate their place in the world, and sometimes the seismic shift that ensues (particularly on the political level, when you’re dealing with members of the nobility or whatever in the late middle ages) can have profound consequences which must be dealt with along with the more ‘mundane’ aspects like grieving and loss. Gosh, I’m talking like a theoretical archaeologist now, aren’t I?
Elizabeth: Louise, thanks for visiting my blog today.
Louise: Thank you very much for having me! It’s been a pleasure.