Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Trials and Tribulations of Writing My First Sequel

You might think that once you've done the hard work of writing the first book of a series, the other books just follow naturally when you sit down to write them. You might think that having your characters already known and mapped would make it easier to pick them up again when you set out to write the next part of their adventure. You might also think that authors never wish they could bend space and time to make a few minor tweaks in the book that's already published and out there to reposition the threads of plot and character arc just a teensy tiny tad.

You would be in good company if you thought all of these things. Until I set out to write a sequel myself, it's what I thought as well. Now I know better.

Don't get me wrong. I love love LOVE my characters, which is a good thing since I'm going on seven years now of having them in my head. But I've learned that having your characters already fixed in ink limits your options for what you can do with them in the next story. Now I have to work to stay true to who they are. Working within the confines of historical events adds another layer of restriction to the story. I know I'm going to get there, and I've already (thank goodness) remembered how to do it: let the characters lead the way. I've found that anytime I try to force the story by throwing events at my characters for them to react to, I lose my way. But if I look at what's happening in the world around them and then ask them what would they do, they're happy to let me know.

Here's what the window beside my desk looks like:

Those are sticky notes with the names of secondary characters, plot beats, historical events, cultural/historical details and other items that I need to make sure are included or resolved. This isn't a full list, just the things I wanted to keep front and center in my mind. I've got the first few chapters about done, and I have the events for the next few chapters already laid out in my mind. We're about to leave on a long family road-trip that will have us driving cross country for three days each way. My amazing husband is going to do most of the driving so I can sit beside him with my laptop open, typing away. I'm looking forward to our family vacation, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't almost as excited about the time to write coming up.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Massacre at Abergavenny

Photo by Charles Taylor, courtesy of http://www.ecastles.co.uk/abergavenny.html

When researching a specific time and place in preparation for writing historical fiction, some events stand out in your memory and nag at the back of your thoughts. The event may be a few years off from your own story, it may involve people who you have not included, but it nags at you anyway. And like the gravitational pull the boulder in the middle of the trail has on your mountain bike, the event pulls your story toward it somehow. It's that compelling. It will not be ignored.

The Massacre at Abergavenny is one of those events. J.E. Lloyd had this to say about it in his History of Wales:

"The border warfare was at all times savage and unpitying, but it did not often witness perfidy and barbarity of this deep dye; small wonder was it, men thought, that misfortune should beset the path of the lord of Abergavenny."

In December of 1175, William de Briouze, 4th lord of Bramber, stepped into his inheritance as the lord of Brecknock. Already a wealthy landholder, the younger William took up his role while his father, William de Briouze, 3rd lord of Bramber, still lived. Aged either 22 or 31 years old, already a father himself with his wife of nine years, the twenty-year-old Maud St. Valery, young William decided to make a statement for himself during that Christmastide.

The young lord invited three Welsh princes to his castle at Abergavenny under the pretense of hearing a royal ordinance as to the bearing of arms. The princes, their accompanying sons and attendants all handed over their arms as they entered the castle--a sign of trust and peaceful intentions that was generally observed as a rule when entering a castle on the host's invitation (as opposed to a siege). One wore one's sword on the road while travelling, but in taverns, churches, and a host's home, swords and weapons were deposited for safekeeping for the length of the stay.

In this case, once the guests were all assembled inside the great hall, the doors were barred and every single man was cut down. William and his attendants then hopped onto their swiftest horses and sped south a few miles to the country of Seisyll ap Dyfnwal, one of the slain. De Briouze arrived ahead of the news of the slaughter, found Seisyll's wife, executed the youngest son, seven-year-old Cadwaladr, in her arms, and left the wife and mother to a fate unrecorded in the historical legend.

As is often the case in savagery, blood vengeance directed the perpetrator. William's motive is said to have been revenge for the murder of his uncle, Henry FitzMiles, allegedly murdered by Seisyll while visiting Siesyll's castle. But more than that, it has been suggested that William sought to eliminate the leadership of the Welsh lands that surrounded him, to weaken and destabilize the local families and thus ensure his own family's security. And as is often the case with blood vengeance, further acts answered the earlier acts. Abergavenny Castle was burnt to the ground by the Welsh men of Gwent in retribution for the massacre carried out there just a few years later; the picture shown above shows the ruins of the subsequent castle built on the earlier castle's ashes. English reinforcements arrived afterward to restore order and William himself escaped capture, but the Welsh carried the day in the end.

William de Briouze's ignominious career carried him in his later years into King John's court, where he became one of the chief suspects (aside from the king himself) in the disappearance and suspected murder of the young Arthur of Brittany, the king's strongest rival for the throne. King John, being John Plantagenet, later changed his favorable feelings toward de Briouze. Eventually William's wife and son would die of starvation in the king's custody, most likely in Corfe Castle, and William himself would die penniless and fallen, alone in exile.

If this tale brings to mind the stories of George R.R. Martin, you are not alone. Game of Thrones is fantasy fiction at it's pseudo-middle-ages goriest, but Abergavenny still resounds through the historical record as an especially dire moment of Norman brutality in the Welsh Marches.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Switching from CreateSpace to IngramSpark

One of the first things my support team told me that needed to be changed post-haste when I hired them was to switch from CreateSpace to IngramSpark/LightningSource for paperback distribution. They gave two reasons to support their recommendation: the quality of print books from IngramSpark, they said, was superior and allowed for higher quality graphics and images, and bookstores would never ever buy from CreateSpace because of the financial model, whereas IngramSpark gave the needed price discount for bookstores and allowed returns.

As to the first reason given, I've now received my first shipment of books from IngramSpark, and I can see that the cover image is noticeably sharper and the colors are a little truer. My cover is matte, and the colors are dark and brooding, and they definitely came out better in the paperback from IngramSpark.  Paper quality seems to be comparable (I used cream), but the ink print in the IngramSpark book is a deeper black that just looks nicer. As an independent author, I'm very sensitive to the need to make my book look as polished and professional as a regular trade paperback. I do think IngramSpark (and working with a professional book designer, of course) has helped me to have a product that can sit proudly on any shelf.

As to the second reason, Ingram provides the 55% discount (40% to bookstores) and the books are indeed returnable. I found a very helpful blog post on the subject here from Giacomo Giammatteo of the Alliance of Independent Authors that provides multiple analyses and some very helpful math. Mr. Giammatteo confirmed what my advisors were telling me as far as bookstores being more willing to stock books under the economic scenario given by IngramSpark. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I remain skeptical, as an independent author, that this could actually happen. I'm not sure if any independent authors have been picked up by bookstores without having been picked up first by an agent and a large-ish publishing house. But I'm glad to at least have the possibility of it happening.

Here is where I miss CreateSpace--not enough to override the other factors, but just the downside to be aware of. The paperback has only been available for a few weeks now, so I have no idea if there have been sales or not (although I'm guessing not since my publicity is just now starting to ramp up), because IngramSpark doesn't report them to authors until the end of each month. I will only find out about sales on a monthly basis, within a week of the month-end. This may not be a big deal for a regular publisher, but for an independent publisher like myself who is investing in different promotional campaigns and needs real-time information to see which campaigns are getting traction in the marketplace, this leaves me flying blind. Fortunately I still have my ebook available for Kindle readers on Amazon directly (I am also distributing through BookBaby to non-Amazon ebook outlets), and Amazon does provide near real-time sales reporting (24-hr delay). It's like trying to watch an entire living-room full of dinner party guests through a keyhole viewer (not that I have experience in that...), but it's something.

As to some of the other differences--needing to buy my own ISBN's and the fees, IngramSpark was still affordable enough to make the shift. Ultimately it came down to wanting to be taken more seriously as an independent author, and taking the steps I needed to to have the most polished product possible, at the most economically attractive terms for buyers.

Has anyone else made the switch? How did it go for you? Did your book get picked up by any bookstores?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Isabel of Gloucester--John's Poor Kept Woman or Independent Countess?

Picture of a Roman woman, but I like to think 
Isabel may have looked something like this.

For the most part, the historical record of western civilization up until the last fifty years or so has been overwhelmingly written by men, so that we might call it "exclusively" written by men.

This matters for a lot of reasons. And many people have pointed this out already.

It is inevitable that we carry our preconceptions with us when we interpret a long-ago person's motives or priorities based on the scant evidence available to us. Given the battle women still fight today to be taken seriously by our government when we discuss violence against women or discrimination in the workplace, by our colleagues when we speak at a conference or publish a book, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether a female-dismissing perspective on women's lives in history might not be subject to contemporary social norms and assumptions about women more than actual historical evidence.

Let's look at Isabel of Gloucester, the first wife of Prince John. As I have researched this woman, hoping to do her story justice in the sequel, I have been repeatedly struck by the dreary assumptions made by historians and writers who have considered the few established facts of her life. Over and over, I read about how she was a victim of the crown, how tragically empty of love her life was, how she lost everything only to die shortly after finding real love.

Here's what is known about Countess Isabel. As part of a deal between her father and Henry II, Henry disinherited Isabel's two older sisters, and her father agreed that she would be betrothed to John when she was only three years old (around 1176). With significant holdings in both England and the Welsh Marches, Countess Isabel of Gloucester was quite the loaded heiress. John Lackland made good on his father's promise of marriage as soon as Henry II died and Johns older brother Richard had the crown (and no one has accused John Lackland of being a "gold-digger," that I've come across so far).

However, no sooner was the ceremony completed than Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, declared the marriage void for consanguinity and placed all of Isabel's (now John's) lands under interdict (essentially, the churches and people were cut off from the body and recognition of the larger church whole). Resourceful John took the matter up on appeal (so to speak) with Pope Clement III. The pope found a way to settle all matters by allowing the marriage to continue, provided that Isabel and John never entered into sexual relations.

After this, Isabel's life is full of murk and shadow. We know that John gave her an allowance and set her up in housing in Winchester. John had his marriage with Isabel annulled after ten years, in 1199, when he succeeded Richard to the throne. John then kept Isabel under the crown's "guardianship" so that he got to hold onto her lands, of course, although he ended up giving them to her sister's son, anyway. We also know that Isabel was required to look after John's second and much younger wife during John's disastrous reign. Her lands were restored to her by her nephew's death without issue in 1213. After that she married twice before dying in 1217 at the relatively young age of 44 (cause of death unknown).

That's a lot of gaps and unknowns.

This is where writing historical fiction-fantasy gets fun. I see no reason to assume that Isabel led a lonely and unsatisfactory life. Women's lives are full of secrets, off-the-record negotiations, and connections and friendships that are disregarded by the record-keepers as immaterial to the great flow of history. But what if Isabel's life was full and more influential of events than anyone gives her credit for? What if...Isabel had secretly bribed Pope Clement III to forbid sexual relations between her and her husband because she found the man so utterly detestable? What if...Isabel was a stunning beauty who enjoyed a discreetly managed romantic relationship that the gossips and court recorders politely ignored? What if...Isabel and her sisters (one of whom was married to the extremely well-connected Third Earl of Hertford, Richard de Clare) stayed close throughout their lives and supported one another with affection and strings pulled as needed? What if her third and final husband, the one she got to choose herself, who happened to have also been John's chamberlain, had been her lover all along, during all those years of guardianship?

What do you think? Are there other women from history who you suspect may have been more in control of their destinies than history gives them credit for?

There is no reason to assume that these possibilities could not also be true, and this is just one case of many. Stay tuned for the next installation in Unsung Women of the Middle Ages: Matilda de Braose.