The Only Blue Door is currently on SPECIAL OFFER at a giveaway price of £0.99. A great read for teenagers and young adults as well as their parents. Offer ends on 30th January 2019.
You may be forgiven for thinking that writers of historical fiction do all their research pouring over detailed history books but there are many other sources that can be useful as well: paintings, sculptures, artefacts, ruined buildings, museums, oral accounts for more recent history, and of course the extensive and all-embracing resources of Google. But despite all that, novelists can still find themselves stuck.
When I decided to write historical fiction set in Moorish Spain in the tenth and eleventh centuries, I didn’t realise that there was so little recorded information about the period—the medieval era is aptly called the Dark Ages—so I found myself presented with a challenge. How to create an accurate and believable account of the time with so few resources to hand. This is where I had to resort to detection and logic. Until the Industrial Revolution—called a revolution for a very good reason—the pace of life was slow and change was gradual. It’s easy to forget that we live in a world that during a single generation has changed out of all recognition. I’m not talking about wars and revolutions but about social change. I can remember a life where only a few people had televisions and telephones, where we corresponded by letter instead of email, WhatsApp and Facetime, where you walked round to your friend’s house or took a bus instead of going by car, where you bought a stamp and posted a letter, where the High Street was a social meeting place as well as somewhere to do your shopping. But when you look further back into history you will see that many aspects of life remained unchanged for generation after generation.
The Moors were in Spain for seven hundred years and it’s true that during that time there were many changes, but mostly at the start of the conquest when a new way of life was introduced. Nevertheless, the arrival of the Moors didn’t mean that the existing population gave up all their old ways; traditions and local customs don’t alter that easily. And the Moors were not a zealous people. Although they conquered Spain, they realised they were vastly outnumbered by the locals, so they didn’t insist on mass conversion to Islam and their ways. They were happy to create a society where Jews, Christians and Muslims could live together in harmony. This convivencia lasted for many generations before the interference of religious zealots both Christian and Muslim, began to unravel the social concord.
So how is this a help to the historical novelist? Let me give you a few examples. In my latest novel, ‘The Apothecary,’ which is set on the shores of the Mediterranean, I introduce some new characters: pirates. Now pirates roamed the Middle Sea, as it was called, for centuries; they are mentioned by the Greeks and the Romans as early as the thirteenth century BC and were terrorising shipping until 19th century AD. There have been some very interesting books written about them, but I could find very little specifics about pirates during the eleventh century. The question is, did the life of the pirates change very much in all those hundreds of years? I doubt it. There would have been improved weaponry and faster ships but the life of a pirate was much the same; they were outside the law, they robbed, they fought and they killed. So when I found a gap in my research about pirate life, I looked to both earlier and later accounts; the continuity was remarkable so I believed it was reasonable to make certain assumptions for my own pirates based on what went on before and later.
For example, what did they do for entertainment (when they weren’t raping and pillaging that is)? Storytelling, music and singing are ancient pastimes that were found all over the world and lingered on into the 19th century. But what instruments would a rough and ready pirate favour? It turns out that an instrument I had always associated with northern Europe, was brought to Spain by the Moors and was likely to have been played by all levels of society. It was the organistrum, or as it was later called in England, the hurdy-gurdy or the barrel organ. There are many accounts and paintings of the instrument in the northern parts of Europe but, again, nothing in Muslim Spain—Islam forbade the painting or sculpture of the human form in case it led to idol worship. But then I noticed one of the carvings above the Portico de la Gloria, the main entrance to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. There were two men seated side by side playing an organistrum, one of them playing the keys and the other turning the crank handle to vibrate the strings. Proof that in 1180 AD the instrument was being used in Spain. Just the sort of music the pirates would have enjoyed listening to either round the camp fire or on board ship.
Here is a further example of how useful it can be to widen the scope of your search for historical data. One of the main characters in my new book is a young Berber soldier. I knew that wrestling was a favourite pastime with the soldiers, both as a way of training and sport and wanted to include it in my book. But what sort of wrestling? Google as usual came to the rescue in a roundabout way. It is quite possible that the form of wrestling practised by the soldiers in eleventh century Moorish Spain was Canarian Wrestling. This sport was first identified in the fifteenth century as the traditional wrestling form of the Guanches, the original settlers of Tenerife, who were said to have brought it with them from North Africa. Recent gene research has revealed a close connection between the Berbers of North Africa and the Guanches. So it’s logically possible that my Berber soldier would have been familiar with Canarian wrestling four hundred years earlier.
The historical novelist often has to rely on hints and clues to create background to their stories where they can’t find concrete evidence. In a way they are like detectives, sifting the evidence and analysing the data to see if it supports their hypothesis. So although I don’t feature any detectives as a main character in my novels, you can see that the main sleuth in a Joan Fallon novel is the author herself.
Work on my latest series of historical novels is progressing well. I have had a change of heart about the name of the series, which I now think will be called City of Dreams. The city in question is Málaga (or Malaqah as it was called in the 11th century) and in its way it was a city of dreams; like many other cities in the world then and since, people flocked to it looking for a better life. After years of civil war, the Umayyad dynasty had crumbled and al-Andalus had fragmented into a number of small independent city states called taifas. The taifa of Malaqah was one of those. The first book in the series, The Apothecary, is with my editor now, and I hope to have it published early in the new year. More on that later.
As I mentioned some months ago, this year I have joined forces with three other writers of historical fiction to do a few joint promotions and the reason we feel that this is to our mutual advantage is because we all write about the same historical period: Muslim Spain. There are a lot of benefits to this exchange of ideas. We are two men and two women; two of us are British and live in Spain all or part of the year, one is an American professor (although not of history) and the other is from Barbados. More importantly we all bring differing strengths to the table - David is a best-selling author of crime fiction and can teach us a lot about marketing, John's knowledge of the period is extensive and Lisa is a whiz kid at social media and has set up our first news letter. I'm sure I contribute in some small way, but I'll leave that for them to comment.
As for the newsletter, as this is the first, hopefully of many, we have all tried to put into words why it is we write about Muslim Spain and not Saxon Britain, or the American Civil War, for example.
Why Moorish Spain?
As I currently live in Andalusia, it seems only logical that I’m drawn to write about the area of Spain where the Moors ruled for over seven hundred years, but the truth is that I have been fascinated with Spain’s Moorish inheritance since long before I moved there. As a teenager I read a travel book by Alexandre Dumas entitled Adventures in Spain and was particularly fascinated by his account of Granada and the Alhambra. The details of the book are long forgotten but since then Spain has always been a land of colour, passion and vibrancy for me.
However the reason for leaving Britain and moving to Andalusia was much more mundane. Something of my interest in Spain must have rubbed off on my daughter because no sooner had she finished college when she announced she was going to live and work in Málaga. Within a few years, my husband and I had decided to join her in her new country and have never regretted it.
As I began to explore my new home I began to realise that there was even more to this country’s past than I had realised and I became particularly interested in its Moorish history. Everywhere I looked there was evidence of its Moorish ancestry, from the architecture and pottery to the food eaten - local dishes that hadn’t changed in centuries. Place names, irrigation systems, gardens and fountains, the language itself, all reminded me that this Christian country once had a very different past.
In the year 2000 I picked up a leaflet about an exhibition of Umayyad art that was to be held in a place called Madinat al Zahra, just outside Cordoba. It was just a couple of hours away so we decided to go, although at that time I had no idea who the Umayyads were. As I have subsequently discovered, the Umayyads had been the rulers of Muslim Spain for three hundred years.
The exhibition was excellent but I was more impressed by the site they had chosen for it: Madinat al Zahra. This was a palace/city built by Abd al Rahman III just after he proclaimed himself Caliph of al-Andalus. It was reputed to have been the most wonderful city in the western world and covered the entire hillside; 25,000 men worked on constructing it. Abd al Rahman III himself had 400 rooms in the palace. It was filled with marble and gold, exquisite engravings and silk hangings, a palace fit for a caliph. It was said that 800 loaves of bread were used each day just to feed the fish in the fountains and lakes. There are a number of theories as to why Rahman III built Madinat al Zahra at a time when Cordoba was considered the most splendid city in western Europe. Why did he need another city? Some say he built it for a concubine called al-Zahra, and named it after her. Others said it was because he felt demoralised after being defeated by the Asturian king. But recent research says it is much more likely that it was built to reinforce his position as Caliph and to promote his independence from both the old caliph in Baghdad and the new upstart Fatimids in North Africa. Rahman III had converted al-Andalus from a collection of individual tribes into a centralised Arab state, proclaimed himself Caliph, the supreme ruler, and he wanted to make sure everyone knew who was the boss. One way to do that was to build a wonderful new city.
But what was much more fascinating to me was the length of time that the city was in existence. Work was started on it in the year 936 and only 70 years later it was already abandoned, and falling into decay. For the next thousand years it was looted, its beautiful buildings broken down and used as building materials. There are pillars from the site in cities such as Malaga, Seville and in many homes in Cordoba; looting old sites for building materials was very common. Not until 1911 was Madinat al Zahra rediscovered by archaeologists and work begun on protecting and excavating the site.
This was the city that inspired me to write the first novel in the al-Andalus series, The Shining City. It took many months of research to get started but the more I read about Moorish Spain the more interested I became in what life was like at the time and how their culture and learning has been passed on, influencing the lives of not only the Spanish but also the rest of Europe.
If you want to learn more about medieval Spain, there's no more enjoyable way than to read well- researched historical novels. But then I would say that.
After my novel The Only Blue Door received an IndieBRAG award I received a message from Susan Weintrob whose regular blog is a mixture of food recipes and book reviews, asking if I'd like her to do a review of it.
Naturally I said 'yes please'—after all good reviews are an author's lifeblood. Susan reviews high-quality Indie books and then invents a recipe that is inspired by the story. Cool idea.
If you'd like to read what she had to say about The Only Blue Door and to find out which dish she was inspired to concoct, here's the link to her blog
You can buy copies of The Only Blue Door on Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com and other on-line bookshops.
Welcome to my guest blogger this month, Lisa J Yarde, historical novelist, speaker and blogger.
This is the third in a series of blogs about what it must have been like to live in Moorish Spain. This time we learn about the life of a Christian slave who decided to change his religion and become a Muslim government minister. Well researched by Lisa for one of her historical novels and filled out by her fertile imagination it gives us an idea of why so many Christians in Moorish Spain changed their religion.
A Choice by Ridwan ibn Bannigash
The Life of a Christian Slave Turned Moorish Minister in 15th Century Spain
My name is Ridwan ibn Bannigash and I have been chief minister to two Sultans of the Nasrid Dynasty, based at Granada’s Alhambra Palace in Moorish Spain. My power over the lives of the kingdom's inhabitants is second to that of the monarchs alone. But I did not always hold such a lofty position at court. I did not always answer to that name.
I was born Pedro Venegas in Christian Córdoba. A common name among prior generations of my family. The señores de Luque, among the richest families of the region. But all of their wealth could not save me from the fate God had pre-destined. When I was eight years old, I became a slave of the Moors in their kingdom, Granada. As a young man, I adopted their religion and lived thereafter as s Muslim.
The penalty for an apostate, any Christian man or woman who had converted to Islam, was death. I knew the risks but also recognized the rewards for those who embraced the faith of their captors. I am but one among many who, since the Moors invaded the peninsula over 700 years ago, perceived the path to power lay with those we once called our enemies. Countless slaves before me have become the leaders of armies and governments, while Christian females married and gave birth to future Muslim rulers. Conversion meant an immediate end to slavery and much more, as you shall see. A prudent choice.
Afterward, everything changed. I had the privilege of marrying one of the most beautiful women of the Nasrid bloodline, my Maryam. She can trace her lineage from the Nasrid Dynasty's Sultan Muhammad VI, El Bermejo as his Spanish Christian contemporaries called him. Others named him a usurper, as if he had been the first or last of the Nasrid clan members to seize power in Moorish Spain. His daughter married Muhammad ibn al-Mawl, who had not only been a minister of the royal court. He was my master and my wife's father. Through our union, I became a close ally and confidante of her brother, Sultan Yusuf IV, who hails from the city of Almería. I shall tell you more of my service to him later.
Together, Maryam and I have raised fine children. Two sons, the eldest of whom is Abu'l-Qasim, who will surely become a minister of the royal court like me, and our daughters, one of whom is Maryam's namesake. When other matters have concluded, I shall arrange an auspicious marriage for her with the one of two sons of Sultan Yusuf IV. The ties that have bound my family to the Nasrid Dynasty must remain strong, for my heirs descend from royal Moorish blood and Christian nobility, who have also influenced the course of events in Granada. Despite the differences between the adherents of both religions, I have taught my children to relish their dual heritage. For as Christian Spain encroaches upon the territory of Muslim Spain, there may come a time when we will need to make prudent choices for our futures.
I shall put aside such concerns and tell you more of the past. In the year 1427, I joined the royal court as a loyal adherent of Sultan Muhammad VIII. Admittedly, an ill-favored ruler among the Nasrids, but certainly, not the most unfortunate of them. He had come to the throne in 1417 as a boy aged eight years old and after two years in power, he lost everything and spent the subsequent eight years in prison at Salobreña on the southern coast of the peninsula. With my support, he gained other allies who rebelled against his rival. A much older cousin of his. These Nasrids are quite cruel to each other. Once my master regained his freedom and the lordship of Granada at the age of 18, I became his chief minister. Such a youthful man needed guidance. In the service of minister Muhammad ibn al-Mawl, I had learned about the governance of Granada and gave the benefit of experience to the new Sultan.
However, the young do not possess the wisdom of their elders. Nor their pragmatism. I had cautioned my master the Sultan against allowing the escape of his rival and that man remained a persistent threat. One we could not ignore. When he returned with the backing of another powerful clan of Moorish Spain, those wretched status-seekers called Abencerrages, I recognized the end had come for my master. He went into exile again at Salobreña, where his enemies murdered him in April 1431. Dead at 22, leaving an infant son behind. An unfortunate end to a luckless man.
His enemy had sought the support of the king of Castile Juan II, but I believed another candidate would suit his interests and, of course, the prospects for Granada. One month after the assassins came to Salobreña, I arrived at the court of Castile and formally submitted the offer of vassalage on behalf of my wife's brother Yusuf. If King Juan II would support his claim to rule Granada, I knew we could unseat the man who had murdered my former master. Our first chance for success came at the Battle of Higueruela on July 1, 1431. Our Moorish forces in conjunction with the knights of Castile from Calatrava defeated the murderer’s army. Some small measure of vengeance. Still, victory did not pave a smooth path to power for my wife's brother. Together, we eliminated areas of resistance, especially in Loja. Finally, on January 1, 1432, Yusuf IV took the throne of Granada. Although he had claimed the majority of support in the kingdom since the battle.
His has not been an easy reign. He is less inclined than my former master to recognize my wisdom. Have I erred again in my support of a man whom I thought could govern well? Surely not, but some mistakes can prove costlier than others. Barely three months after his ascension, rumors swirl about his adversary, who has dared approach King Juan II of Castile with a plea for neutrality in the conflict to come. The kings of Castile can be fickle, but I’ve done my best to ensure we maintain Christian support of my brother-in-law's rule. He is fearful, especially for the lives of his two young sons and a tender daughter. I am cautious. My girl may not marry this Sultan’s heir after all. If his murderous foe advances on the kingdom, I must choose again. I have endured slavery and chose freedom. I have witnessed the loss of power, but with careful planning, it is within my grasp again. I shall dictate my fate. Never again will cruel caprice rob me of the life I had imagined. I will do as I must. There is no other option except survival.
Islamic Spain: 1250-1500 by L. P. Harvey
A History of Medieval Spain by Joseph F. O'Callaghan
Thank you Lisa for a glimpse into Moorish life, this time in the 15th century halls of power.
You can find out more about Lisa's novels on her webpage.
My latest novel, Love Is All is at last available for purchase on Kindle. Those of you who prefer the comforting feel of a paperback will have to wait another month, sadly.
I don't know why I'm so easily seduced by what the 'experts' tell me, but I often am. Love Is All was ready months ago, proof read, cover designed, edited and ready to go, but then I decided to put it up for pre-order instead of selling it immediately. The reason given by the 'experts' is that when you have hundreds of pre-orders and they all hit the for sale button at the same time, it does wonderful things for your ranking on Amazon. And a high ranking means more sales. Great theory, or so I thought. And it probably works if you're Ken Follett or William Boyd. I should have considered what I do myself when I see that a book isn't available for immediate purchase—I move on to something else and maybe go back later, or maybe forget about it altogether. So my next new novel will go on sale immediately—unless someone persuades me differently.
I wrote the first draft of Love Is All over ten years ago. I can't really remember what gave me the idea for the story but I was reminded of it just last year. I was at the International Women's Day Conference in Marbella and one of the speakers at the dinner on the evening before the conference, spoke (through her partner and carer) about living with Locked In Syndrome. This attractive, confident, smiling woman was in a wheelchair and communicated by using an alphabet board. When her partner pointed to a letter she would signal if it was the one she wanted. To all intent and purposes she lived a very restricted life but that didn't prevent her from telling her own story and describing her personal struggle to live her life. She was an example to us all and she convinced me that a tragic story doesn't have to have a tragic ending. Meeting her inspired me to dust off my old manuscript and publish it. So here it is.
When Mark tells his wife that he has been having an affair with her oldest and dearest friend, he sets off a chain of events that reverberates throughout his whole family and changes the lives of those he loves forever.
Love Is All tells the story of a family still grieving after the death of the youngest son, five years previously. Teresa, Mark and their two grown-up sons are at last coming to terms with a life without him, when the harmony of their home is shattered by Mark’s confession. Distraught with grief and rage, Theresa runs out of the house and drives off into the night; she crashes her car and is seriously hurt.
Months later, when she eventually comes out of a coma, her family are devastated to hear that she has Locked-In Syndrome. She is effectively locked inside her own body and unable to communicate with anyone.
For Teresa it is a nightmare from which she cannot wake. When she realises the enormity of her plight she is unable to accept it and decides to seek refuge in an imaginary parallel world, a world where she is a desirable woman again. She refuses to acknowledge either the doctors or her family, but Ian, her younger son, will not let her go; he persists in every way he can to give her back the will to live.
In the second of my blogs about what it was like to be living in al-Andalus, I have invited the author John D Cressler to participate with a blog about a famous surgeon, Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi. In a time before the National Health Service and Medicare, if you became ill life could be pretty tough, but as you will see, not in medieval Islamic Spain.
What comes to mind when you think of the practice of medicine in early medieval Europe, say during the late 10th century? You know, those dastardly Dark Ages! Leeches? Letting blood? Maggots run wild? Gruesome amputations using a dull, rusty blade? Biting a bullet for anesthesia? The smell of gangrene? Worse? Well, not in Islamic Spain – al-Andalus. Nope! Andalusi medicine was by far the most advanced in Europe, by a mile, and if you happened to be a knight wounded in battle, your odds of surviving that nasty sword-slash, or ugly pike-puncture of your chain mail, was far better if you were a Moor than a Christian. Why? Simple answer: Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (c. 936-1013). Known the west as Abulcasis (a corruption of the Arabic Abū al-Qāsim), al-Zahrawi was a surgeon, teacher, chemist, and royal physician to Caliph al-Hakim II. He is widely considered the father of modern surgery. Truth be told, we all owe him a debt of gratitude.
Al-Zahrawi's is best remembered for his 30-volume (30!) encyclopedia of medicine, known as the Kitab al-Tasrif (The Method of Medicine), which profoundly influenced the practice of medicine in Europe. Completed in the year 1000 CE, the breadth of coverage was truly remarkable, and included: the design and use of a wide array of surgical instruments and techniques, neurosurgery, orthopedics, ophthalmology, pharmacology, nutrition, dentistry, childbirth, pathology, and neurological diagnosis.
The Kitab al-Tasrif’s volume on surgery was translated into Latin and became the standard source of surgical practice for the rest of Europe for the next 500 years! Al-Zahrawi specialized in curing disease by cauterization, and he invented a remarkably diverse set of surgical instruments (see the figure below), including those needed for the inspection of the interior of the urethra (ouch!), as well as for removing foreign objects from the throat, the ear, and other sensitive orifices, and even for assisting in the safe delivery of breeched-babies. If you happen to visit Córdoba, an exhibit of his instruments can be found on the Calahorra Tower Museum across the Guadalquivir River from the Great Mosque. He routinely performed surgery for the treatment of head injuries, skull fractures, spinal injuries, subdural effusions, and headaches, and gave the first clinical description of an operative procedure for hydrocephalus by surgically draining excess intracranial fluid. Who knew?!
Al-Zahrawi’s medical encyclopedia was the culmination of his 50-year career of medical training, teaching and practice as a physician. He vigorously advocated for the importance of a positive doctor-patient relationship, and wrote affectionately of his many students, whom he referred to as “my children.” He established and staffed dozens of hospitals in 10th century Córdoba, and emphasized the importance of treating patients irrespective of their social status, their financial means, or their heritage. He trained his students to make close observations of individual cases in order to ensure the most accurate diagnosis and the best possible treatment plan.
Not always properly credited for his massive contributions to medicine (go figure!), al-Zahrawi's described what would later become known as “Kocher’s method” for treating a dislocated shoulder, and the “Walcher position” in obstetrics, still standard techniques in use today. He described how to ligature blood vessels (using a suture to shut off the flow of blood) almost 600 years before Ambroise Paré, and was the first to explain the hereditary nature of hemophilia.
This remarkable man figures prominently in my historical novel, Shadows in the Shining City, the second book in my Anthems of al-Andalus Series. In fact, the many marvels of Islamic medicine figures prominently in all three of my novels: Emeralds of the Alhambra, Shadows, and Fortune’s Lament!
On my next blog stop, I will introduce you to another important figure in the world of medieval Anadalusi medicine: Lisan al-Din ibn al-Khatib, another deeply influential physician and polymath from 14th century Granada. Teaser: Ibn al-Khatib almost single-handedly saved Granada from the ravages of the bubonic plague sowing destruction through Europe in 1373. You know, that pesky Black Death, the scourge that killed one-third of Europe and changed the course of history. Stay tuned!
John D Cressler
Thanks John for a very informative and entertaining post. You can read more about John D Cressler and his books on his webpage http://johndcressler.com
Good morning Lisa, thank you for talking to us today.
Thanks so much for inviting me as a guest. I admire you very much.
First of all, would you like to tell us when and why you decided to become a writer.
As a friend of mine reminded me some years ago, I started writing short stories back in junior high school, but it was not until 2005 when I joined my first critique group, that writing became a passion. It would be another six years before I decided to publish the novel I worked on with the group, the first of a six-part series set in Moorish Spain.
I know you like writing historical fiction but what attracted you to that genre in particular?
I was born in Barbados, so grew up surrounded by its colonial history with massive Parliament buildings and former great estates of sugarcane planters – a family member lives in one, which was interesting to explore the first time. So history has always fascinated me, in particular, some of the more obscure parts. When I first started writing, I went in search of the stories of the losers in history. Those who were marginalized and never got to tell their side because of their status or the fact that they lost the great battle or claim on their homeland.
Do you have a particular period in history that you enjoy writing about?
The medieval period is my favorite because the birth of chivalry occurred at such a time when chivalry was anything but the norm. A violent but transformative period for Europe.
Indeed it was. What is it that’s so special for you about medieval Spain?
The rich culture, which still dominates modern-day Spain’s language and foods. The brilliant architecture. The idea that Spain was not always an entirely Catholic country where Arabic dominated the Moorish courts fascinated me.
Apart from the main character in your books, which character/s give you most pleasure to create?
The household slaves and servants of my main characters, who accompanied them through the most personal aspects of life. No information exists about such people, not even names, but they would have come from any part of Europe and Africa. They would have shared in the intimacy of domestic household, but also witnessed some of the most tumultuous political events. My characters in the Moorish Spain series have always relied upon those close relationships with eunuchs of the harem and maidservants; some of them loyal and devoted to their service, and others, less than compliant or accepting of their servile roles.
I agree, those often nameless characters help to move the story forward. Tell me, how much time do you spend researching your historical novels and which sources do you use?
For the series, I started the research in 1995 while I was in college. I had not planned on writing a series at all, but as I discovered more about Moorish Spain, my research continued. I still keep up with recent discoveries although I finished the last book in 2017. What can I say about my obsession? If there’s a place that should cause enduring fascination, it’s Moorish Spain! I have about 40 books on the topic in the period I’ve written about, but really, I only needed three to complete the novels. One of which I discovered in 2014 while writing book four. Oh, well. I then put it to good use. I always start with the Internet to discover the books I need to buy. I prefer my research easily accessible, at home. I’m pleased to say for my current WIP, the research has not taken quite as long. Maybe close to a year. Of course, I keep finding contradictory and inaccurate information. When I’ve faced that difficulty in the past, I went with the information that seemed most logical and I’ll be doing that now. This has meant adapting my storyline to fit those events, but I strive for logic if I can’t get absolute accuracy.
Do you have a new novel in mind for 2018? Can you tell us about it?
I’m currently working on a three-part series about the father and sons of Prince Dracula. Order of the Dragon is still likely to come out this year, but Sons of the Dragon won’t appear until next year. The first novel details the painful choice Prince Vlad Dracul II had to make regarding his sons in order to save his people from annihilation by the Turks.
That sounds absolutely fascinating. Good luck with the series.
Well, thank you, Lisa, for talking to us today.
You can find out more about Lisa’s books on her website: http://www.lisajyarde.com/p/books.html
Connect with her on
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lisajyarde/ and Twitter: https://twitter.com/lisajyarde
Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of the six-part series, Sultana, set in Moorish Spain, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of the last Muslim dynasty to rule in Europe. The first title in the series is available in multiple languages. She favors the medieval period, in which two of her other novels and a short story are set. Born in Barbados, Lisa lives in New York City. She has been a presenter at the Historical Novel Society’s 2015 Denver conference and serves as the social media manager of the chapter, having been a co-chair (2015-2017). She is also an enthusiastic blogger and has moderated and contributed to blogs for ten years.
Good morning John. Well I suppose my first question is a little self-evident. How did a Schlumberger Chair Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering decide to become a historical novelist?
Thanks for having me, Joan, it is a real pleasure. Funny! Yeah, I get it. Professor and novelist? WHAT?! Not a typical combination, that much is certain. My training is in physics, and I am a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech, where I lead a large research team focused on what comes next in the world of electronics and nanotechnology. BUT, for my entire life I have almost exclusively read fiction for pleasure, and have always dreamed of writing fiction since I was a kid. For me, fiction is one of the very finest and important forms of artistic expression. I wanted to be a part of that. Experience it firsthand, and engage both my imagination and creativity. It has turned out to be everything I dreamt of, and more!
Your first published book was in 2003 when Silicon-Germanium Heterojunction Bipolar Transistors was published. How did you progress from academic writing to writing a novel?
Beyond physics, my great love is history, especially medieval history (another crazy combination, I know!). After six non-fiction books, ranging from graduate and undergraduate level textbooks to books intended for general audiences, I decided to take the plunge and go after my first novel. A dream come true. Given my love of medieval history, writing historical novels was thus a natural fit. I have not looked back since!
From reading your webpage I see that you have a very busy life, with family, work at Georgia Tech and numerous hobbies. How do you find the time to write historical fiction as well?
Hehe. Yep, way too many hobbies! Finding the time to write is always the challenge, and routine and constant contact with my characters is key. Fortunately, I was gifted with being an early riser and a morning person. Sunrise is when my creativity is highest! So I am up at 5:00am each morning, and after my shower, coffee, meditation/prayer time, and breakfast, I retire to my study, close the door, and step into medieval Spain. I am a consummate compartmentaliser! I write Monday-Friday from about 7:30am to about 10:00am. I then step out of Spain, close the door, and head to work. Fortunately, my graduate students are all late-nighters, so I still beat my research team into work! I find that writing five days a week for several hours a day is enough to move the story along. I am averaging a novel every two years or so, which I can live with.
What was it about Moorish Spain in particular that appealed to you?
Simply stated, my ignorance of it. Loving history as I do, and knowing quite a bit about medieval Europe, somehow I missed the boat on the magic of Muslim Spain. Who knew?! I recall the day well when I was web-searching for a suitable location for my first novel and stumbled across 10th century Córdoba and Madinat al-Zahra. Riveting stuff, and a history I knew very little about. I was hooked, and began to devour everything I could lay my hands on. It was a joyful, exciting process doing the background research for my novels. Still is.
You live in Georgia in the USA, a fair distance from Spain. Did you do all your research through books about the period or did you have the opportunity to visit Andalusia?
For each novel I have traveled to Spain and spent 2+ weeks doing research on the locations I write about. Because my time window is narrow, I do all background research/reading/digging/plotting prior to the trip, so that when I arrive on location I am more focused on sensations which will aid my creative writing: sight-lines, sounds, the moon, the light, landscapes, architecture, and especially spending quiet time visualising the action I intend to write about, living the history of my characters. Being alone when doing this is key, so that I can seamlessly enter the creative zone, that magical zone of imagination, so to speak. My trips to Andalusia have been very special, one and all. I have been to Andalusia now five times.
Your third book in the series was published in April. Can you tell us a little about it.
Yes, Fortune’s Lament was released in April. Hooray! This third novel took me almost four years (I had to complete a 2nd edition of one of my non-fiction books in the middle of writing), so it is deeply satisfying to have it finally out. Let me give some background on the time period in which I write, and then I will zoom-in on each of my three novels in the Anthems of al-Andalus Series. As you know well, much of modern Spain was under Muslim control for nearly 800 years (from 711 to 1492 C.E.). Medieval Islamic Spain was deeply influential in world history, for a multitude of reasons, including the rediscovery, translation, and dissemination of the lost works of medicine, science, and philosophy of the ancient Greeks. The Muslim Umayyads (with roots tracing back to Syria) were lovers of books and learning, and helped launch a cultural revolution in Córdoba, which transformed the western world. An exceptional 200-plus-year period of peaceful coexistence occurred between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam under Muslim Umayyad rule, providing a powerful lesson in the practice of multiculturalism for our twenty-first-century world. This time period was both deeply influential in world history and riveting, and I have fallen in love with all-things-al-Andalus! All three of my novels are love stories interwoven into this rich history.
Emeralds of the Alhambra, my first release, is a love story set in the resplendent Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, during the Castilian Civil War (1367-1369 C.E.), a time when Muslims took up their swords to fight alongside Christians. Emeralds tells the story of William Chandon, a Christian knight captured and brought to the Alhambra to be used by the Muslim sultan as a political pawn, and the Sufi Muslim princess Layla, daughter of the sultan’s chief counsellor. As Chandon’s influence at court grows, he becomes trapped between his forbidden love for Layla and his Christian heritage, the demands of chivalry and political expediency. Chandon and Layla must make choices between love and honour, war and peace, life and death, choices which ultimately will seal Granada’s fate as the last surviving stronghold of Islamic Spain.
Shadows in the Shining City, my second release, is a prequel to Emeralds of the Alhambra, and immerses the reader in Islamic Spain’s Golden Age. Shadows tells the story of the forbidden love between Rayhana, a Muslim princess of the royal court, and Zafir, a freed slave. Young love blossoms in 975 C.E. in Madinat al-Zahra, the Shining City, Caliph al-Hakam II’s magnificent royal palace located just outside of Córdoba. Their love story is set against the backdrop of the epic rise to power of Rayhana’s ruthless father, Ibn Abi Amir, a man history will come to both celebrate and revile for the role he plays in the collapse of Islamic Spain.
Fortune’s Lament, my latest, is again set in Granada, 120 years after Emeralds of the Alhambra, and sets the stage for the final collapse of Muslim Spain. It tells the story of Danah, a young Muslim woman who aspires to be the first female physician in the city. Love unexpectedly blossoms between Danah and Yusef, a valiant prince of court from a rival clan, during the bloody final conquest of Granada by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Christian Spain. As the light of Islamic Spain dims, the Inquisition looms large on the horizon, as does the coming voyage of Columbus to discover the Americas.
Do you plan to write any more books in the Anthems of al-Andalus series?
Most definitely! There will be a sequel to Fortune’s Lament, and I am set to begin writing, hopefully this month. Can’t wait! The sequel will complete the story of Danah and Yusef, and the final collapse of al-Andalus. Beyond that, who knows?! BUT, I am having great fun, and there are 800 years of riveting history to choose from, so we’ll see what comes next!
Thank you so much for talking to us John and sharing the secrets of your writing life.
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Welcome to JG Harlond, author of the best selling historical novel series THE CHOSEN MAN. Today she tells us about Book Two, A TURNING WIND, and the historical background to it. It's set in 1640 in the royal courts of Spain and France.
Felipe IV of Spain, nicknamed el Rey Planeta by his contemporaries, presided over a court that was both pious and secretly decadent. A ‘lazy king’, he was said to have ignored the good government of his country by relying too heavily on his valido, the infamous Conde-Duque de Olivares, and devoting his time to collecting Old Masters, being painted himself by Velázquez, hunting, theatre-going and womanising. Felipe also presided over the beginning of the decline of the Spanish empire, and watched his children die until there was but one in-bred drooling son to follow him. Felipe himself was the son of Felipe III of Spain and Margarita Teresa of Austria, and already the product of Habsburg endogamy before he married a wife with Habsburg blood, and then when she died, his niece.
Felipe’s first wife was Elisabeth of France, daughter of Henry IV and the odious Marie de Medici, and sister of Henrietta Maria, who at the time of my new novel, A Turning Wind, was Queen of England. Elisabeth, or Isabel as she came to be known, despaired of her husband’s over reliance on the dubious Conde-Duque de Olivares and constantly urged him to take charge of his country and its affairs as a good king should. After years of nagging and getting nowhere, Elisabeth resorted to conspiring with other Spanish nobles to remove Olivares as Chief Minister altogether. The Queen, who was renowned for her beauty, intelligence and ‘noble’ character, was very popular with the Spanish people, but this may have had a lot to do with the fact that she openly opposed the much hated valido. Eventually, by allying herself with Olivares’ nephew and successor, Luis de Haro, Elisabeth succeeded in ousting Olivares and for a brief period Elisabeth held considerable influence over Felipe and his empire. This is the background to my new novel, A Turning Wind, the second story in The Chosen Man trilogy.
A great deal has been written about what was going on in both Spain and England during this period, which is the run up to the English Civil War. What is less well known is that Spanish and English ambassadors were drawing up a treaty to allow Spanish tercios (fighting to recover the Spanish Netherlands) to use southern England as a land bridge to Flanders. This was needed because French ships were constantly sinking Spanish troop vessels in the English Channel despite the Queen of Spain being French, and the Queen of France being Spanish. Basically, all of Europe was at each other’s throats in the early seventeenth century – but Felipe IV of Spain tried not to let it worry him too much. Like the King of England, who was trying to ignore an elected Parliament and gathering internecine war clouds, Felipe focused on hunting and art. Collecting Old Masters was seen as an important part of a monarch’s reign for it showed their power and good taste.
The background reading and research for A Turning Wind took a long time because before writing a story involving the Queen of England and the Queen of Spain I needed to sort out who was where and why, before I could even get down to who was doing what between 1639 and 1641. But it was fascinating; and having access to Henrietta Maria’s letters to her husband made it that much more personal, although that part comes into the next book By Force of Circumstance, out later this year.
In A Turning Wind, the wily merchant-rogue Ludo da Portovenere is taking secret messages from the British monarchs to Madrid. Here is a scene set in El Escorial, which I knew pretty well having lived nearby for many years.
Ludo, who is in Spain on a secret mission for England which he intends to turn to his own advantage, is in the studio of Diego Velázquez.
(Ludo) was interrupted by voices from behind him, the King’s slow drawl – a voice that suggested the speaker was almost too lazy to talk – and another, deeper, more resonant voice. He turned back to face the room. Felipe was holding a swarthy man of middle years by the arm and pointing with his other hand at a half-completed brown horse prancing away from the viewer. The artist, whose jet-black hair and moustache contrasted sharply with his surprisingly clean smock, responded cautiously but firmly. Felipe wasn’t going to get his own way by the sound of it.
Deciding not to listen for fear of being dragged in as adjudicator, Ludo began looking at portraits in various stages of completion, noting how the Habsburg jaw ruined gentle brows above smiling blue eyes; how the present queen was painted into an armament of upholstery; how – and this could be useful – how the artist Velázquez had recreated the faces of his sitters to perfection, but had been unable to capture any semblance of equine beauty in the equestrian portraits. Prince Balthasar, for example, a good-looking boy despite his lineage, had been saddled with, literally, various lumps of bay rump and diminutive hooves pawing the air. The ‘draft’ for the latest portrait – Ludo had no idea of the terminology but these were evidently practice runs – lost any intimation of forthcoming majesty in its subject as the eye was drawn to the over-fed quarters of a barrel-bellied hack.
Lost in his musing, Ludo failed to see Doña Isabel enter the long studio with a young lady-in-waiting. When he noticed her, she was already at his side.
“Your Majesty,” he blustered, “forgive me. I was thinking about the paintings.”
“Don Ludovico what a pleasure, we did not know you were here. You are admiring Don Diego’s work.”
It was a statement not a question, and indeed, who could not admire the man’s work, or that of his apprentices mixing paints and preparing palettes further down the open studio.
“I am Your Majesty, although . . .”
“Although?” Doña Isabel’s pleasant tone with its slight French accent rose questioningly. “You find something at fault?”
“No, indeed, Your Majesty, I was merely lamenting . . . No, that is not the correct word. To be honest, I was regretting that the young prince, as heir to the throne, could not have been seated on one of my special Arab horses. They are so fine, so exquisitely designed they would – erm – lend more grandeur to his youthful nobility.” Ludo found himself running out of imagination . . . He could not recall a woman with such dark perceptive eyes, except Leonora in Goa, about whom he chose not to recall anything if he could help it.
“Arab horses, you say? Do we have these horses in Spain? We must for the Moors were here for many generations.”
“I cannot say, ma’am. I first encountered them in a country across the other side of the world. They are exquisite.”
“And how do they differ, please, from my son’s mount here? How are they better?”
“I would not say they are ‘better’, ma’am, but they are more beautiful. They have big, honest eyes; a face that is appealing, attractive; they are not large, as our working horses here are large, or broad as is the Prince’s mount here, but they are immensely strong, and so full of life . . . Let me tell you a refrain, a proverb about the Arab horse: God spoke to the south wind, saying: ‘I will create from you a being which will be happiness to the good and misfortune to the bad. Happiness shall be on its forehead, bounty on its back, and joy in the possessor.’”
The Queen stared into Ludo’s eyes. A smile formed about her small, full mouth. Ludo had to school himself not to take her hand. To cover his feelings he added, “‘Bounty on its back and joy in the possessor’, this would be a mount worthy of a future king and emperor.”
“If he has an empire over which to rule,” murmured the Queen quietly.
“Everything you do is for your son?” Ludo ventured, playing his second card according to his discussion with Henrietta Maria and his subsequent commission.
“Could you not use your son to maintain what is his?” Ludo half-turned so anybody watching them could not see what he was saying. “Take the Prince with you to the King and let him show or explain to His Majesty how his country is being wracked by continual wars, how he might lose his birthright and suffer because of . . .” Ludo dropped his voice even lower, “your enemy.”
“Use a child as a pawn?” The Queen snapped, her voice now sharp with disgust.
Heads turned. Surreptitiously, Ludo moved her on to another painting and they stood as if observing its lines and colours. “Tell me,” he said, “why such a simple honest strategy would not influence the King? Surely he must think of the Prince’s future above all.”
“Yes, of course he does, but our son is still under the Countess-Duchess Olivares’ tutelage. For this approach I must wait until he is free of her control.”
Ludo recognised the excuse: Isabel was more afraid of the dragon-wife than the gargoyle husband. “Might I remind Your Majesty that in Florence it is said a true Florentine’s first waking thought is ‘who can I dupe today’ – I say ‘dupe’, ‘cheat’ is too strong and I cannot find a good translation for the Spanish word engañar. But my point is that you are of Medici blood, madonna. Use your wiles to obtain what you seek.”
“My mother is a Medici, and all her life she has done exactly what you have described. And what has she obtained? Exile, ignominy and poverty. I also have proud, noble Habsburg blood, Don Ludovico: I will not be seen to be meddling in His Majesty’s affairs.”
So you want me to do it, Ludo thought, inclining his head as if accepting Isabel’s reasoning. Expecting to be dismissed, he bowed again, ready to leave.
To his astonishment, the Queen placed her hand on his arm, saying for anyone to hear, “I would speak of this more – and other matters related to your more recent travels – attend us this evening after the siesta hour.” She then turned and went to her husband’s side, saying, “Don Ludovico promises to tell us of his travels this afternoon.”
Ludo stayed rooted to the spot, unsure, for a very rare moment in his life, what to do next. Then he gave a mental skip and a jump: the seeds of his release had been sown. Isabel had rejected his logical strategy too quickly; she would be thinking about it for the rest of the day. Thinking about it and realising, consciously or not, that he was not in Spain to murder her enemy. Henrietta Maria had told him to ‘get rid of’ her sister’s enemy and there were various ways that could be achieved without violence.
(From, A Turning Wind, Penmore Press, 2018 © J.G. Harlond)
The Chosen Man and A Turning Wind are available from book stores and on-line retailers. Her is the Amazon UK link for books by J.G. Harlond.
You can find out more about the author on: www.JGHarlond.com
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Find Jane on Twitter: @JaneGHarlond
Joan Fallon is a writer and novelist living in Spain.