Fantasy, mystery, thrillers, horror, historical. . .I write it all, and review it too!

May 30, 2011

Medieval Mondays: Gallery of Crusader Castles

As the final stop on my virtual book tour, I'm over at the Double Dragon Publishing blog talking about the Order of St. Lazarus, a group of leper Crusaders. I figured I'd give you a gallery of Crusader castles this week.

The Europeans learned much of their castle building during the Crusades. The Arabs were much more advanced in defensive architecture but the Crusaders proved to be quick learners. The photo above is of Marqab castle in Syria, courtesy of Shayno. That promontory it's set on is actually an extinct volcano, and makes for a natural defense. The walls aren't too shabby either! Even Saladin wasn't able to take it.
This chunky example is from Byblos in Lebanon, photo courtesy Heretiq. Saladin took this one in the same year, 1188, that he failed to take Marqab castle.
  I love this old photo of Tebnine Castle in Lebanon. Note the rounded corner and digital readout on the lower right corner. T. Dakroub took this shot who-knows-when and really captures the atmosphere. Yes, it snows in the highlands of the Middle East!
Another well located castle is Montfort in Israel, as this shot by Bukvoed shows.The name in French means "strong mountain."
And how could I skip Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, the biggest and best preserved Crusader castle of them all! I've visited this castle myself but none of my photos capture it as well as Ed Brambley did. Like Marqab castle, Krak des Chevaliers was originally an Arab castle taken and expanded by the Crusaders. It served as the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller.

May 24, 2011

The Red and White Springs of Glastonbury

Today we have an interesting guest post by Theresa Crater, who writes urban fantasy and mysteries, and teaches writing, British literature, and meditation.

My Power Places series starts in Egypt with Under the Stone Paw. Egypt is filled with mythological sites—as is Glastonbury, the location of the second book in the series, Beneath the Hallowed Hill. The Tor and the twin springs form the center of much of the mythology of ancient Avalon.

Red Spring, or Blood Spring as it is sometimes called, is now the centerpiece of Chalice Well Gardens, a beautiful, peaceful site well worth several visits. No one is certain where the water rises from—perhaps from the Mendip Hills or beyond, or it could be from deep within the earth.

Whatever its source, Red Spring carries a lot of iron, creating the red color. Most followers of the Old Tradition see Red Spring as the blood of the Mother Earth, giving to us healing and vision. Indeed, next to the well shaft is a polygonal chamber which many think was used by the Druids for initiation rituals.

Christians have claimed the well began to run when Joseph of Arimathea buried the Holy Grail below Chalice Hill. The spring to them is the blood of Christ. Today people come to this well to meditate, pray, and ask for guidance and healing. Many hang prayer ties in the trees surrounding the well, so many that the Chalice Well keepers are hard pressed to keep up with them. They also have in their possession a blue cup that many claim is the grail itself.

White Spring is the sister of Red Spring, just across a stone wall and Well House Lane. Now housed in a stone building that I’ve been told used to be a restaurant, the building was built by the Victorians to provide clean water during a cholera outbreak. The public protested the destruction of the natural wells and lime encrusted areas the natural flow of White Spring had created. For a time, White Spring was almost unnoticed compared to her more famous sister, but now thanks to Glastonbury residents, it has been refurbished and made into a temple. White Spring belongs to Brigid, the Celtic fire goddess who is guardian of sacred springs. Later, she became a Christian saint.

The water of White Spring is filled with calcium from the abundant limestone in the area. It flows from what were caves and tunnels deep in the Tor. The water is clear and tastes wonderful. It is said to bring healing and all the powers of Brigid—poetic eloquence, wisdom, smithery skills, and healing abilities. In Beneath the Hallowed Hill, several characters follow the tunnels into deep, magical caverns beneath the Tor—and even into the land of the Fae where they encounter Gwyn ap Nudd, King of the Faeries.

Week four of my virtual book tour

May is coming to an end, and I'm wrapping up my virtual book tour for Roots Run Deep.

Tuesday, May 24: I'm over at Nicole Zoltack's blog talking about how to create believable fantasy races.

Wednesday, May 25: I'm at Mithril Wisdom discussing how my work as an archaeologist affects my writing.

Sunday, May 29: At Writers in Business I'm talking about the writing process and some of the more practical, financial aspects of being a writer.

Monday, May 30: I'll be back at the Double Dragon blog with a special Medieval Mondays post on leper knights of the Middle Ages, plus I'll do one here too, of course!

Hope you'll come along!

May 23, 2011

Medieval Mondays: Female Knights in the Middle Ages

Today we have a guest post from fantasy romance author Nicole Zoltack, who is working on a trilogy starring (you guessed it!) a female knight. Check out her website for lots of information on the Middle Ages.

When you think of knights, you imagine a tall young man wearing armor on the back of a noble steed. Although most knights were male, there were some female knights in the Middle Ages. Some wore armor, others commanded troops, some were members of an Order.

One female knight to wear full armor into battle was the Duchess Gaita of Lombardy, who rode beside her Norman mercenary husband. Another was Petronilla, Countess of Leicester. Wearing a mail hauberk with a sword and a shield, she defended her lands from Henry II of England. She and her husband participated in the rebellion in 1173 against Henry.

In 1149, the men in the city of Catalonia had been called away. The Moors knew this and attacked the supposedly defenseless town. The women defended the town and forced the Moors away. Raymond Berenger founded the Oder of the Hatchet. Although the women were not called knights (they were called dames), the women were granted many rights that only privileged men had during the Middle Ages, including exemption from taxes. The Order most likely died out with its original members and the women most likely never saw combat again, but if they had never taken up weapons against their enemies, the town of Tortosa would have fallen, and instead of being given privileges, their lives may well have ended in slavery or even death.

The House of Dudley's coat of arms is of a woman with long hair wearing a helmet. The woman is based on Agnes Hotot. Her father had a disagreement with another man and they agreed to settle the matter over lances. But her father grew ill, and Agnes disguised herself and took his place on the field. After she unseated her foe, Agnes removed her helmet to show her hair and showed her chest so he would know he had been bested by a female.

Agnes wasn't the only woman to compete in tourneys. Many noble ladies hunted with hounds or hawks. Women, on occasion, pretended to be men to partake in tourneys, as Agnes had, and some, it's believed, even fought in the crusades.

The most famous female knight of all was Joan of Arc. At seventeen, she remains the youngest person in history to command a nation's army. Patay was her greatest military victory on June 18, 1429. More than 2,000 English knights were killed while few of the French died. Twice Joan suffered injuries on the battlefield, but she remained with her men on the field.

Female knights fought for honor, freedom, and their land. They fought with the determination and heart of knights. Whether known as dames or knights, these brave women are a source of inspiration for us all.

Learning about the Order of the Hatchet inspired me to write Woman of Honor, about Aislinn and her journey to knighthood.

Aislinn of Bairbhe dreams of becoming a lady knight to honor the death of her fallen brother. To her mother's horror, King Patrick grants Aislinn's wish and she begins her long years of training.

Despite the mockery of the other pages, and the disdain of Prince Caelan who also trains to be a knight, Aislinn commits herself to her dreams and embarks on a journey of self-discovery and bravery. Through the years, Aislinn and Caelan grow from sparring classmates to good friends. They both know that someday Caelan will marry for the sake of the kingdom, but even that cannot keep them from falling in love.

The threat of war with the Speicans is a constant threat, and one that grows more frightening as she and Caelan train toward their eventual knighthood. Aislinn has committed herself to serving Arnhem, and has promised herself as King's Champion when Caelan claims the throne. She is willing to give up everything... her childhood, her life, even her heart for Arnhem. No matter the pain it brings.

Be sure to leave a comment to be entered to win some signed postcards and magnets. Each comment during the Champion of Valor Blog Tour gives you an entry for the grand prize: a copy of the entire Kingdom of Arnhem trilogy - Woman of Honor, Knight of Glory, and Champion of Valor.

May 18, 2011

Coprolites: the fascinating story of ancient poop

Today I'm wearing my archaeology hat over at Alex Cavanaugh's blog and writing about Viking poop. No, really! You can learn a lot from paleofeces, or coprolites as we prefer to call them. So come on over and join the serious, scientific discussion. Well, sort of serious.

May 17, 2011

Guest post: Marian Allen on landscape in Eel's Reverence

The Eel is a place. The reverence is … complicated.

When elderly priest of Micah, “Aunt” Libby, goes on a Final Wandering, she’s accosted and then befriended by an amphibious mugger. The area known as The Eel is infested with worse than minor criminals–it’s under the thumbs of a coalition of greedy, brutal priests. Aunt Libby is a frail barrier to stand between peace and violence, and the worst violence may not come from her enemies…but from her friends.

Aunt Libby is run out of town by the coalition, then brought back by true believers. When her presence is discovered, she becomes a pawn in game of politics, power and prejudice, with her friends held for ransom and her life as their price.

A fantasy with no sorcery or warriors, EEL’S REVERENCE explores the kinds of choices ordinary people have faced through all time and in all places, and shows the contrariness and heroism with which they’ve dealt with the consequences of those choices.

EEL'S REVERENCE began with a couple of scenes of a merman in a desert town. A merman and his human female semi-friendly acquaintance. A merman who got himself into trouble a lot. Did he meet this semi-friend in the desert, in the town, or before?

It also began with a scene-snapshot of a priest being cornered by a pack of wolves. Were the wolves good and the priest bad, or were the wolves bad and the priest good, or were they all one or all the other?

When the book began to coalesce around these two bits, The Eel was formed. I wanted to begin with the priest meeting the merman--or, as these androgynous creatures are called in my book, mermayd--on the beach, within sight of the coastal town where most of the action takes place.

So I needed a coast long enough to include more than one town, narrow enough to make the bordering forest and the forest’s bordering desert quickly reachable. Long and narrow and irregular, as most coastlines are. Like an eel. And the mermayds have long, serpentine lower bodies to support their upper bodies out of the water. Long and narrow. Like an eel.

My husband had bought several volumes of McGraw-Hill’s Our Living World of Nature. I spent hours pouring over THE LIFE OF THE FOREST, THE LIFE OF THE DESERT and THE LIFE OF THE OCEAN. I also read up on life in early cities and pre-industrial rural homesteads, locations where semi-precious stones are found, and natural dyes.

I didn’t dump everything I learned into the text, but it all informs what can happen in the various settings, keeps me from going all anachronistic, and gives readers the occasional detail to bring the scene to life. For instance, in the desert, Aunt Libby tells Loach how to find water. It becomes more than just a Boy Scout lesson when he immediately turns to Muriel and announces his new knowledge as if she hadn’t just heard it from Aunt Libby.

When Muriel manufactures a “relic” to sell to a desert temple, she makes one that would be especially precious in a desert community: one including a damp piece of cloth.

In a farm cleared from the forest, a family hides Aunt Libby from Uncle Phineas’ wolves with the help of herbs and home-brewed beer.

The coast is where the mermayds and the humans can choose to clash or come together, which is one of the tension clusters in the book.

I indicate the pride or humility of the priests by how expensive their robes are, and by what (if any) semi-precious stones they use for adornment or temple enrichment. My reader may not know the difference between using pearls or using opals, but I know. It makes a difference to me, and I think it makes a difference in how I write about the characters and their relative locations.

Marian Allen writes science fiction, fantasy, mystery, humor, horror, mainstream, and anything else she can wrestle into fixed form.

Allen has had stories in on-line and print publications, on coffee cans and the wall of an Indian restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky. On Tuesdays, she posts on the group blog Fatal Foodies. She has three novels–EEL’S REVERENCE now, SIDESHOW IN THE CENTER RING and FORCE OF HABIT coming in 2011–available through Echelon Press in various electronic formats.

Allen is a member of the Green River Writers and the Southern Indiana Writers Group, and is a regular contributor to SIW’s annual anthology.

May 16, 2011

Medieval Mondays: Maximilian armour

Just a short post today because I'm over at the blog of my publisher, Double Dragon, writing about holy wells. Hop on over to learn about this remarkable bit of folklore that's passed from generation to generation in Europe, changing all  the while.

This jaunty fellow is a suit of Maximilian armour. Named after the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, this style of armour was very popular in Germany in the early 16th century. As you can see it's highly stylized, with fluting on most parts and a high standard of craftsmanship throughout.

Maximilian armour is often considered the high point in European armour making. Produced at a time when early guns were making their appearance on the battlefield, this signified the final glorious period of armour making before such suits became useless.

The suit pictured here is actually rather plain compared with some. Some have entire scenes of battle and courtly love etched onto them, while others have helmets fitted with elaborate metal faces, complete with metal moustaches!

It's interesting that the cheaper, less attractive leather armour survived on the battlefield for longer. While it was not much good against bullets either, it was far cheaper than plate armour and did provide some protection against swords and pikes, making it worthwhile to continue wearing.

Thanks to Jürgen Howaldt for this fascinating photo.

May 15, 2011

Week three of my virtual book tour

The book tour for Roots Run Deep is still steaming along. This week we have a nice variety of guest posts and interviews.

Monday, May 16: Medieval Mondays will be over at the Double Dragon blog, where I'm guest blogging about holy wells. Don't worry, though, I'll be doing Medieval Mondays here too!

Tuesday, May 17: I'll be over at Marian Allen's blog writing about landscape and how it influences your story. Marian will be doing the same thing right here about her novel Eel's Reverence.

Wednesday, May 18: In what promises to be both the high and low point of my virtual book tour, I'll be over at Alex Cavanaugh's blog writing about what we can learn from Viking coprolites. If you don't know what a coprolite is, it's simply the scientific term for preserved poop!

Thursday, May 19: Deirdra Eden Coppel is interviewing me about Roots Run Deep over at A Storybook World.

Friday, May 20: Nothing scheduled. I need a break! But if anyone needs a break more than I do and wants me to do a medieval or fantasy themed blog post while they go to the bar, drop me a line and I'd be happy to oblige.

May 11, 2011

A goblin has taken over Hump Day Improv!

Hi everyone, I'm Kip Itxaron, heroine of Roots Run Deep. Typically for a goblin, I did all the real work in the novel while A.J. sat on his ass typing on that weird device he calls a computer. Typically for a human, he takes all the credit. He even pretends he made me up!

Anyway, I'm getting a little freedom today over at N.R. Williams' blog where I'm running her famous Hump Day Improv, a weekly writing prompt. So pop on over and check it out!

May 9, 2011

Medieval Mondays: Witch bottles

The folklore of England is filled with odd spells and strange objects. My personal favorite are the so-called witch bottles.

Witch bottles date to at least the 17th century and were used until the early 20th. Folklore recipes and stories tell us the bottles were filled with various "magical" substances and buried under thresholds to keep witches away from the house.

They could also lift curses. If someone was sick and you suspected a curse, you'd make a witch bottle and hold it over the fire. The witch would feel the flames until he or she ended the curse. If the witch was able to tough it out long enough, the bottle would burst and the witch won.

Another variant on the witch bottle theme was to use them to capture witches. The Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford has a witch bottle with the witch supposedly still inside! Reminds me a bit of the Cajun tradition of hanging bottles from trees near the house to catch wandering spirits.

I know of only one that's been found with the contents intact. It was reported in the July/August 2009 issue of British Archaeology. A 17th century bellarmine jar like the one pictured here in this Wikimedia Commons photo was found upside down in a pit by workmen in Greenwich. It was still corked and a chemist investigated the contents. These included: human urine, 12 iron nails, a bent nail through a bit of leather, 8 brass pins, hair, a bit of fluff the investigator thinks came from a belly button (!), and ten fingernail shavings from a man who had recently had a manicure.

The fingernail shavings, hair, and naval fluff probably came from the person the bottle was supposed to protect, since folklore spells usually required a personal possession or a bit of the body to work.

I have an idea for a witch bottle story fluttering around in the back of my head. I'll have to write it someday!

May 8, 2011

What happens when a goblin thief gets interviewed by a crime reporter?

The heroine from my fantasy novel Roots Run Deep (published by Double Dragon) has been interviewed by crime beat reporter Mitch Malone. Mitch is a pretty arrogant guy, but Kip is a goblin who's used to bad attitude from humans. See how they get along over at W.G. Gager's blog!

Schedule for week two of the Roots Run Deep virtual book tour

I've survived the first week of my first-ever virtual book tour. I'm exhausted and elated. The Internet can be a friendly place after all! I have some very interesting stops for week two. Here they are:

Monday, May 9: The heroine of Roots Run Deep, Kip Itxaron, will be interviewed by tough-as-nails crime beat reporter Mitch Malone over at W.S. Gager's blog. Poor Mitch, he thought he was the only one in the world with attitude. . .

Tuesday, May 10: I examine folklore beliefs related to fertility and childbirth over at Theresa Crater's blog.

Wednesday, May 11: I'll be taking over the Hump Day Improv session on N.R. Williams' blog. This writing prompt will include an intriguing image from the Middle Ages.

Sunday, May 15: I'll be blogging about the business side of writing for Writers in Business. UPDATE: this has been rescheduled for May 29.

Hope you'll come along for the ride!

May 7, 2011

Latest stop on my virtual book tour: real-world culture in fantasy fiction

In the latest stop on my Roots Run Deep virtual book tour, I'm over at Buried Under Books blogging about real-world culture in fantasy fiction. How should it be included? How can you make an Earth culture fit in a fantasy setting? Hop on over to Buried Under Books and find out!

May 5, 2011

Rat on a stick and mule meat soup

For the third stop on my virtual book tour for Roots Run Deep, I'm talking about what the goblins in my world cook up for dinner. Stop on by to learn all about what these poor, disadvantaged goblins have to survive on. Guaranteed to get your kids to shut up about oatmeal and liver.

May 4, 2011

Magic systems in fantasy fiction

Today as part of my book tour I'm blogging over at "The Round Table: An open discussion forum between readers, authors and general fans of fiction." The topic today is magic systems in fantasy fiction. What works? What doesn't? I'm the first of several authors to weigh in on this topic, so be sure to check in regularly!

May 3, 2011

Chatting today on the Writing and Publishing Yahoo group

I'll be chatting all day on the Writing and Publishing Yahoo group. Feel free to drop by and ask me about medieval history, archaeology, writing, or my novel, Roots Run Deep.

This is the second stop on the first week of my virtual book tour. Hope you'll come along!

May 2, 2011

Medieval handgonnes: how accurate were they?

Today I'm happy to host a very special guest blogger, Sean McLachlan, who has not only authored eight books, but also has a blog about his writing life called Mid-list Writer. His latest book is about the world's first rifles. While he does today's Medieval Mondays feature over here, I'm writing about leather armour at his blog. Take it away Sean!

We often hear that medieval guns were crude, inaccurate, and generally ineffective. One common mantra is that they were more dangerous to the wielder than the target. Yet one has to ask, why did armies across Europe incorporate them into their arsenals starting in the 14th century and keep using them until they eventually replaced the longbow and crossbow? Obviously early firearms had something to offer. But what?

When I started researching my book Medieval Handgonnes: The First Black Powder Infantry Weapons, I was shocked that there was no other book written in English on the development of the gun before the matchlock. I found no books in any other language either. Guns are, after all, one of the most important inventions to come out of the Middle Ages. Until very recently historians just accepted the image of crude early handgonnes without testing it or even really thinking about it. While this made my research extra difficult, it also made it extra rewarding.

Western Europe, 1390-1400. Courtesy PHGCOM

 When I say "handgonne" I mean a handheld black powder weapon fired with a match or hot wire. There was no trigger, no automatic firing. Pretty primitive stuff! "Handgonne" was only one of many terms used in that era.

In recent years reenactors and archaeologists have experimented with medieval recipes for gunpowder and tested replicas handgonnes. They've found these weapons could punch through armor better than a longbow or crossbow, although they have a much shorter effective range. Scholars have long debated how effective a longbow arrow is against plate armor. Many believe arrows had more of a harassing effect, with lucky shots getting into eyeslits, joints, or hitting horses. The escape velocity of the bullet was higher, making it more effective, but since it wasn't as aerodynamic as an arrow it lost velocity pretty quickly. Accuracy was better than people assume. Skilled reenactors can hit a man-sized target most of the time even at 45 meters (49 yards). Since men generally fought in large, compact masses, this made them even easier to hit.

This 15th century hackbut ("hooked gun") braces against a loophole and crossbeam at Muider Castle, The Netherlands. Photo by Sean McLachlan

Of course longbows and crossbows had better range, speed, and accuracy. In medieval illustrations you often see bowmen and gonners standing together. This capitalized on the advantages of both weapons while negating the disadvantages. As the enemy advanced they were harassed by the bowmen and when they got in close got cut down by the gonners. 

Handgonnes truly came into their own in the 15th century, as improvements in gunpowder production made them more powerful and cheaper. Soon the ratio of guns to bows tilted in favor of the gun. While crossbows and the English longbow lasted on the battlefield for some time, the development of the matchlock in the late 15th century heralded a new era in warfare.