28 April 2016

Excerpt Thursday: CALL TO JUNO by Elisabeth Storrs

This week, we're pleased to welcome author ELISABETH STORRS with her latest release,  CALL TO JUNO, set in the ancient Roman period. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a digital only copy of Call to Juno - this giveaway is open internationallyBe sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

Four unforgettable characters are tested during a war between Rome and Etruscan Veii.

Caecilia has long been torn between her birthplace of Rome and her adopted city of Veii. Yet faced with mounting danger to her husband, children, and Etruscan freedoms, will her call to destroy Rome succeed?

Pinna has clawed her way from prostitute to the concubine of the Roman general Camillus. Deeply in love, can she exert her own power to survive the threat of exposure by those who know her sordid past?

Semni, a servant, seeks forgiveness for a past betrayal. Will she redeem herself so she can marry the man she loves?

Marcus, a Roman tribune, is tormented by unrequited love for another soldier. Can he find strength to choose between his cousin Caecilia and his fidelity to Rome?

Who will overcome the treachery of mortals and gods?

Praise for Call to Juno

"An elegant, impeccably researched exploration of early Rome and their lesser known enemies, the Etruscans... Elisabeth Storrs weaves a wonderful tale!" 
Kate Quinn, author of The Empress of Rome Saga

Buy all of Elisabeth Storrs' novels at:
About the Author
Elisabeth Storrs is an Australian author who graduated from University of Sydney in Arts Law, having studied Classics. Her curiosity piqued by an Etruscan sarcophagus depicting a couple embracing for eternity, she discovered the little-known story of the struggle between Etruscan Veii and Republican Rome and the inspiration to write the Tales of Ancient Rome Saga.

Elisabeth lives with her husband and two sons in Sydney, and over the years has worked as a solicitor, corporate lawyer and corporate governance consultant. She is the Deputy Chair of the NSW Writers’ Centre and one of the founders of the Historical Novel Society Australasia.

27 April 2016

The Intellectuals: Lalla Zaynab and Lalla N’Soumer - Indomitable Sufi Scholars

By Laura Rahme

“Raise your words, not voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”
– Rumi, Persian Sufi mystic.

Sufism in Algeria rose in importance during the 16th century, under the Ottoman Empire.  One of the most powerful Sufism school of thought in Algeria is the Rahmanya. It emerged between the 12th and 18th centuries. It offered spiritual teaching and education, monetary assistance to its adherents, a refuge for the needy, and was instrumental in maintaining community cohesiveness and social integrity.

Lalla Zaynab was an erudite scholar from the Rahmanya order. It was believed that she possessed Baraka – a spiritual force flowing from God, giving her the ability to perform miracles. Born in 1850, this remarkable ascetic who had taken vows of celibacy, proved a veritable force against the schemes of the French colonists.

The Zawiya of El Hamel
Portrait: Lalla Fatma N'Soumer

Lalla Zaynab was the unique child of Shaykh Muhammad ibn Abi al-Qasim who ran the Zawiya (lodge or monastery) of El Hamel. The zawiya played a key role in teaching the Quran, spreading Rahmanya teachings, feeding the poor, providing relief to flood victims and enabling scholars to occupy positions of great importance. Like many zawiyas in the country, which numbered 160000 by 1887, it helped preserve Algerian identity and cultural heritage. By 1890, there were several hundred students and scholars studying at the El Hamel zawiya at any given moment. It was visited by 7000-8000 pilgrims annually.

In addition to Islamic jurisprudence, Quran and Sufi doctrines, students learned chemistry, mathematics, astrology, astronomy and rhetoric. Shaykh Muhammad reminded the community that the pursuit of science was a duty of all Muslims, a belief which harked back to the medieval Islamic era.

While the French authorities were not known to praise Algerian Muslim leaders, Shaykh Muhammad b. Abi al-Qasim was often described as having “great intelligence, vast knowledge, and [being] pure of morals."

Nevertheless, the French were paranoid about any politically active Sufi brotherhood and their threat to the French empire. They closely monitored all Algerian leaders.

the zawiya of el hamel
A Female Scholar at the Head of the El Hamel Zawiya

Lalla Zaynab had lived secluded in the zawiya for years and as her father’s confidant, had a thorough understanding of its day to day operations. Well versed in all manuscripts and books of the zawiya library, she was the natural successor to her powerful father. But the local French authorities would not see this as beneficial. Their low regard for her gender led them to believe that as a woman, she would be more likely influenced by anti-French forces.

The French were keen to have the shaykh’s nephew, Sidi Mohamed, lead the zawiya. He was not only ambitious and of average intelligence, but also most devoted to French interests. On top of that, he spoke French! However, they also noted that unlike the virtuous and pious Zaynab, Sidi did not have the esteem of his local community, who considered him avaricious and attached to the things of life.

This did not deter the French. A few months before the Shaykh’s death, on 10 Mars 1897, Captain Crochard certified that he had received a letter from the Shaykh, confirming that he designated his nephew, Sidi Mohamed, as his successor.

Following the Shaykh’s death on 2 June 1897, Sidi Mohamed was eager to install himself in the shaykh apartments and inherit the immense fortune. No sooner did he arrive than he was met by the defiant Lalla Zaynab who, brandishing an official will drafted in 1887 declared that she was her father’s sole heir and that she did not acknowledge Sidi Mohammed’s moral and spiritual authority.

Lalla Zaynab met opposition from her cousin, who attempted to have her shut in the harem, but the community who loved her rose against him and his supporters. For the locals, while there was initial reticence as to whether Zaynab was the most befitting leader, it was not due to her gender. Instead, the people were anxious to know whether she, too, possessed her father’s Baraka. A voice apparition from the Shaykh declaring that his daughter had inherited his healing and supernatural powers had soon quashed any doubts.

The French Threaten Lalla Zaynab

Lalla Zaynab
Upon Lalla Zaynab’s triumph, Captain Crochard was out of his mind. He wrote, “this woman has destroyed everything I have put in place.” At this juncture, Commandant Fournier alerted the headquarters in Algiers, enquiring whether a military intervention might be needed to topple Lalla Zaynab and ensure Sidi Mohamed was made head of the zawiya in her place.

Eager to adopt more conciliatory measures, especially with a woman, Crochard attempted to speak with Lalla Zaynab in the hope of pressuring her to defer to her cousin, but she insisted that the letter Crochard held was a fake and wanted to hear none of it.

Crochard had run out of ideas. It seemed that only military force could achieve French interests.  

Would Lalla Zaynab and her community be forced to face the French army? And at what cost?

Consider here that the Shaykh’s fortune amounted to 2 500 000 francs which at the time was an enormous sum when in colonial Algiers, a labourer was paid an average of a mere 1.5 franc per day.

It would not be the first time that the French military would take on a zawiya. One had but to reflect on what had happened when they had first invaded Algeria…

The Joan of Arc of Algeria

From the time of the French arrival in Algeria, the zawiyas usually taught its students to struggle against French dominion.

Back in 1830, when confronted with the French invasion, the Ottoman Dey Hussein called upon the Rahmanya Shaykhs around the Kabylia area and Algiers, to defend the land from French colonial rulers.

At the time, the Rahmanya was led by a young Kabyle woman called Lalla N’Soumer. Born in the Djurdjura area of the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, this highly charismatic spiritual leader and scholar was soon to be referred to by the French as the “Joan of Arc of Djurdjura”.

Her real name was Fatma Sid Ahmed and she was known for her great scholarly gifts, wisdom and intelligence. In 1854, at barely 24, she rallied indigenous Kabyle people, leading an insurrection against the French troops, often throwing herself into the fray and combatting alongside the renowned freedom fighter Abd-el-Kader.

Lalla Fatma N'Soumer in battle
In all, Lalla N'Soumer led a formidable Rahmanya resistance against the French, heading an army of men and women and being successful during several battles including on 18 July 1854 when the French suffered heavy casualties. The French, led by Marshall Randon, asked for a cease-fire. But three years later, in 1857, having replenished and fortified their armies, they broke the cease-fire and again launched into battle. This time round Lalla N’Soumer’s armies were not victorious. 

Just as Joan of Arc had suffered a turn of fortune, Lalla N’Soumer was arrested and incarcerated. She died years later in prison at the age of 33. The French soldiers squandered the wealth of her zawiya and completely destroyed her library.
In fact, from the time of their arrival in Algeria, the French colonists had closed many zawiyas, burning books and manuscripts. French historian Alexis de Tocqueville said in 1847, "We dominated the land, changed its function, established charity centers, neglected schools, dispersed the zawiya...ignored religious men and judges of the law. In doing so we made Islamic society more miserable, and more ignorant, than when we first met."

Lalla Zaynab Takes on the French

If Lalla Zaynab was going to take on the French she would have to be more astute than Lalla N’Soumer.

Under pressure from Captain Crochard, Lalla Zaynab quickly understood that she could not survive a military intervention. Instead, and this is where her scholarly genius shone, she was going to fight the French using their own colonial law against them! She announced that she would press charges against Crochard and his superiors.

In August 1897, Lalla Zaynab met Maurice l’Admiral, an Afro-descendant lawyer from Guadeloupe known for his anti-colonial position and she proceeded to raise a case against the French military administration. Lalla Zaynab who spoke no word of French, instinctively understood how to use colonial law by drawing attention to the military administration’s failure to “respect the indigenous populations”. On top of that, she also had the genius idea of going further - she accused the French authorities of misogyny. Touché! French self-righteousness over its ‘better’ treatment of women was instantly placed into question.

Maurice ''Admiral illustration
Once Maurice l’Admiral began his independent judiciary intervention, the state of affairs underwent a transformation. Of particular concern was the bad publicity caused by French poor treatment of Muslim dignitaries. At the time, the French had commenced an international public relations campaign designed to convince Muslims in Morocco, Tunisia and elsewhere of the benefits of French rule. This case was detrimental to the desired image of French tolerance and benevolence.

In October 1897, Jules Cambon, governor general of Algeria was alerted by the authorities and told of Zaynab’s judicial case. Luckily for Lalla Zaynab, Jules was a man of culture, who later was to be elected at the French Academy. He was the first colonist to engage in dialogue with the order leaders and to show interest in Sufism. In no uncertain terms, he told Algiers Commandant Collet-Meygret that they had to renounce all military intervention against the El Hamel Zawiya.

The zawiya was saved.

Lalla Zaynab had used the pen instead of the sword and won.

For the following years the mystical scholar, Lalla Zaynab, ran the zawiya with authority and wisdom. She gave generously to the poor and the needy, continuing her father’s legacy. She was a revered figure for years to come. It is said that in her approach to confronting the French, Lalla Zaynab saw 70 years ahead of her time, what would become crucial to Algerian nationalism.

The Legacy of the Rahmanya

Today the Rahmanya legacy lives on and its teachings are more important than ever.
Established in 1990, the Rahmanya Association for Zawiya Scholarship emphasises spiritual education, efforts to preserve religious unity and avoid extremism and preservation of the Algerian Islamic identity.

Since 2001, an ordinance has asked for collaboration to protect the young from media influence and from religious extremism.


Tariqah Rahmania: Its Roots and Prospects, by Kacimi El Hassani and Mohammed Raouf, The Journal of Sophia Asian Studies No. 27 (2009), Sophia University Repository for Academic Resources.
Lalla Fatma N'Soumer, Amazigh World, 20 April 2007, http://www.amazighworld.org/history/index_show.php?id=1828, Accessed on 28 Feb 2016.
À La Tête D’une Grande Zaouïa En 1897 Lalla Zineb, L’insoumise, by Benchenouf Djamaledine, 20 April 2013, http://dzactiviste.info/a-la-tete-dune-grande-zaouia-en-1897-lalla-zineb-linsoumise/, Accessed on 28 Feb 2016.
Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East, by Edmund Burke and Nejde Yaghoubian, University of California Press, 2006.

Rebel and Saint - Muslim Notables, Populist Protest, Colonial Encounters (Algeria and Tunisia 1800 – 1904), by Julia A. Clancy-Smith, University of California Press, 1994.

All images from Commons

20 April 2016

The Intellectuals: Alfonso X’s Contribution to World Science and Culture

Juan Diego portrays
Alfonso X on the
series Toledo
He has a portrait hanging in the US House of Representatives in the Great Lawgivers series. A moon crater bears his name. His name is on the largest unified collection of annotated medieval music. Why do so many fields of inquiry praise the intellectual efforts of Alfonso X, el Sabio? What mark did he leave on the world to make us think he was so learned?

The short answer: his books.

In the General Estoria, we read: “The King makes a book, not because he writes it with his hands, but because he outlines the facts in it, and edits it and makes it right, and shows the way in which it is to be made… Just as we say that the King makes a palace, we don’t say it because he constructs it with his hands, but because he ordered it to be made…” The Book of the Sphere discusses at length the way King Alfonso worked as general editor. He came up with the idea for the book and what it should contain, and then went through it to take out extraneous parts and correct infelicities.

Alfonso X oversaw these projects to give himself access to the best knowledge in order to learn how rule his country more wisely, and a great additional benefit was that the books were created in Castilian and in Latin. They could then be consumed by Alfonso’s Castilian-reading subjects and Europeans farther afield. A wise populace is the beginning of a wise kingdom, and wise foreign friends make for smooth dealings and further the cause of that wise kingdom.

The collaborators made use of the finest sources available. They accurately cite Aristotle, the early Christian saints including Augustine, and eleventh-century philosophers such as Pedro Alfonso and Aelred of Rievaulx, to give the most basic examples. The scope of the intellectual activity has led to many scholarly volumes. Here’s a list of highlights.

The Alphonsus Crater on the Moon. Wikimedia Commons
• Alfonsine Tables
• Picatrix
Book of Knowledge of Astronomy
Book of the Forms and Images
Book of the Fixed Stars
Book of the Sphere, etc.
(More about Alfonso X’s astronomy on Unusual Historicals in July.)

Other Science
Lapidario—A book of erudition about types of stones.

Alfonso X in the US House of Reprsentatives
• The Fuero Real—A pragmatic town charter that was granted to new towns in order to begin regularizing the rule of law throughout Alfonso’s kingdoms.
• Espéculo—Elegant and comprehensive legal theory with practical applications as an afterthought.
• Siete Partidas—A great book of medieval thought that also served as the basis of Spanish law for centuries.
• Specialized books of law—The Book of Gambling Houses, the Book of Frontier Commanders, various ordinances, etc.

• Book of Calila and Digna—This charming book is the first work of Castilian prose narrative. Based on ancient Indian texts via Arabic sources, two jackals (or lynxes) tell each other fables to illustrate complex and sometimes conflicting points of wisdom.
• Setenario—Often classed with the legal works, this book obsessed with the number seven is an unfinished compendium of the most secret kinds of knowledge and how to apply them.
• History of Spain—Tells the story of the Iberian Peninsula from the end of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the thirteenth century.
• General History—An astoundingly wide-reaching world history from Biblical times.

• The Cantigas de Santa Maria—The largest collection of written medieval music in the world. More than 400 praise and miracle songs in Galician Portuguese for the Blessed Virgin with fun melodies and gorgeous illustrations. I attempted to describe how wonderful this collection is in this post. I investigate one exciting cantiga in this post.

Alfonso's sculpture at the National Library in
Madrid emphasizes intellect with books and a scroll.
Pastimes because leisure is important for refreshing the intellect.
• Various cantigas de escarnio e mal dizer—Profane, sometimes grotesque, mostly humorous, and at least one moving account of the weariness of a king in failing health (“Non me posso pagar tanto”).
• Libro de ajedrez, dados e tablas—A comprehensive illustrated compendium of chess strategy for the troubled intellectual. Ways to play dice, backgammon, and other games of chance are not as highly regarded.

Much of this body of work had far-reaching impacts in medieval Europe and modern world. The astronomy inspired and informed Copernicus, and the law works influence decisions today even in the American Southwest.

In order to begin my studies of Alfonso X, I had to vastly broaden my fields of expertise in addition to the strictly literary training I’d had up to that time. Perhaps Alfonso X’s greatest wisdom lay in the voracity with which he pursued all intellectual subjects. It seems there was nothing the Wise King wouldn’t want to investigate and read about further.

Simon R. Doubledays’ new biography (The Wise King, New York: Basic Books, 2015) seamlessly weaves the trials and tribulations of Alfonso X’s life and times into the writing of the body of work he left behind. He makes a good case that Alfonso X based his intellectuality on the model of polymath Muslim princes. Indeed, the translators and compilers frequently relied on rescued ancient documents in Arabic. Doubleday’s book is an excellent overview of a fascinating king—I learned a few things I didn’t know before. 

Jessica Knauss earned her PhD in Medieval Spanish with a dissertation on the portrayal of Alfonso X’s laws in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which has been published as the five-star-rated Law and Order in Medieval Spain. A driven fiction writer, Jessica Knauss has edited many fine historical novels and is a bilingual freelance editor. Her historical novel, Seven Noble Knights, will be published in 2016 by Bagwyn Books, and she is working on the sequel. On the contemporary side, her YA/NA paranormal Awash in Talent will soon be published by Kindle Press. Find out more her writing and bookish activities here or here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too!

15 April 2016

New & Noteworthy: April 15

Michelle Styles' novel RETURN OF THE VIKING has just been released in French as LE RETOUR DU VIKING. Visit michellestyles.co.uk for more information. 

Alison Morton recently celebrated the release of her new novel INSURRECTIO with an exciting launch day at the London Book Fair. Read all the details on her blog alison-morton.com. Congratulations Alison! 

Blythe Gifford has several international releases this month: in French, IN THE MASTER'S BED has been re-released as Passion A Cambridge while WHISPERS AT COURT is out as Pacte Avec L'Ennemi; and in German, THE HARLOT'S DAUGHTER has been re-released as Die Tochter der Dirne and SECRETS AT COURT as Das Pikante Geheimnis der Zofe.

13 April 2016

The Intellectuals: The Start of the Carolingian Renaissance

By Kim Rendfeld

In 780, Frankish King Charles might have been thinking about his realm’s long-term future and wanted to give his empire an intellectual foundation, one to associate Francia with ancient Rome and rival the Byzantines.

At that time, the man we today call Charlemagne had ruled for 12 years and had conquered Aquitaine and Lombardy. Although he was still warring with Saxon tribes, he had gained significant territory. The father of six (with No. 7 on the way) was 32, no longer a young man by medieval standards.

He and his queen, Hildegard, who was from a long-established, powerful family, started a journey to Rome, perhaps with empire-building on their minds, judging by what happened in Rome the following spring.

But first the royal family needed to spend the winter in Pavia. There, Charles might have met Paul the Deacon, a Lombard who wrote Historia Romana and other works and had taught in the overthrown court of Pavia, and Peter of Pisa, a deacon and poet who would later teach the king Latin grammar.

A public domain image from 1830 of Alcuin
presenting a manuscript to Charlemagne
When the Frankish royals resumed their journey in warmer weather, Charles met Alcuin in Parma. Alcuin, a Saxon from Britain, already earned a reputation as master of the cathedral school at York, and Charles invited him to lead the Palace School in Francia. Alcuin agreed, after he got permission from his superior upon his return to York.

In Rome, the pope anointed Charles and Hildegard's three- and four-year-old sons as subkings, and their six-year-old daughter was betrothed to the child emperor of Byzantium. The Frankish king and the pope apparently discussed Charles's uneasy relations with his cousin the duke of Bavaria, resulting in high-level diplomatic talks later.

After Easter, Charles and Hildegard returned to Francia in the company of intelligent men: Peter of Pisa; Paul the Deacon; Paulinus of Aquileia, who would later write about theology and play a role in converting the conquered Avars in the 790s, and Fardulf, a poet who in the 790s exposed a plot to overthrow Charles and was rewarded with the abbey of Saint-Denis.

Charles’s intellectuals would come and go in fulfilling their other roles, and his circle of scholars would expand to include other nationalities such as Theodulf, a Visigoth from Hispania and leading satirist, poet, author, and bishop of Orléans, and Dungal from Ireland. The circle had a few Franks such as Angilbert, Charles's trusted aide, diplomat, poet, lay abbot of Saint-Riquier who would transform the place into a center for learning, and later almost-husband (technically a Friedelmann) of Charles's daughter Bertha.

These thinkers and writers were sometimes rivals who were not above teasing and sniping at each other in their poetry. But thanks to them and others, Francia produced more literary work than before.

Charles's own education level in the 780s is unclear, but it was higher than most of his illiterate countrymen's. Likely, his mother taught him his first lessons, and she hired a churchman to tutor him as he got older. By the end of his life, he could read but not write. He could converse in Latin in addition to his native Frankish and understood Greek better than he could speak it. He enjoyed the liberal arts ranging from literature to math to music and astronomy, studied philosophy, and had his sons and his daughters educated.

He never stopped learning, and in old age, he tried his hand at writing. He didn't need that skill. He had clerks for that as did the rest of the nobility. But this hunger for knowledge might been another reason he recruited intellectuals.


Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel

Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance, edited with an introduction by Peter Godman

Kim Rendfeld's third novel, Queen of the Darkest Hour, about Charlemagne's fourth wife, Fastrada, includes the early days of the Palace School. She is also the author of The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar. Connect with Kim on Facebook (facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld), Twitter (@kimrendfeld) her blog (kimrendfeld.wordpress.com) or her website (kimrendfeld.com).

10 April 2016

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: Annie Whitehead on TO BE A QUEEN

This week, we're pleased to welcome author ANNIE WHITEHEAD with her latest release,  TO BE A QUEEN, set in the early English medieval period of the Anglo-Saxon queen Aethelflaed. One lucky visitor will get a copy of To Be A Queen - this giveaway is open internationallyBe sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

One family, two kingdoms, one common enemy ...

This is the true story of Aethelflaed, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, daughter of Alfred the Great. She was the only female leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

Born into the royal house of Wessex at the height of the Viking wars, she is sent to her aunt in Mercia as a foster-child, only to return home when the Vikings overrun Mercia. In Wessex, she witnesses another Viking attack and this compounds her fear of the enemy.

She falls in love with a Mercian lord but is heartbroken to be given as bride to the ruler of Mercia to seal the alliance between the two Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

She must learn to subjugate her feelings for her first love, overcome her indifference to her husband and win the hearts of the Mercians who despise her as a foreigner and twice make an attempt on her life.

When her husband falls ill and is incapacitated, she has to learn to rule and lead an army in his stead. Eventually she must fight to save her adopted Mercia from the Vikings and, ultimately, her own brother.

**Q&A with Annie Whitehead**

What made you choose to write about Aethelflaed?

Many years ago, when I was a history undergraduate, I heard my tutor say of Ethelred of Mercia that “nobody knew where he came from.” This interested me and I felt that one day I would write his story, this man who appeared on the pages of history with no fanfare and no backstory. Years later, once I began researching, I realised that there was an even more compelling story, that of his wife, Aethelflaed. She showed incredible resilience, being married off as a ‘peace-weaver’ and yet evolving into so much more than a political pawn. It is clear that at first the Mercians did not take to her and yet somehow she became so beloved that they followed her even into battle. This remarkable woman has barely been written about, either in fiction or non-fiction.

That must have made the task of researching the novel quite difficult?

I think that one of the reasons she’s been neglected is that there is very little documentary evidence about her life. Although Mercia was a separate kingdom at the time of her birth, it eventually became a satellite of the kingdom of Wessex, and it was the Wessex kings who subsequently became kings of England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was commissioned by Alfred the Great and written by monks of Wessex, so it tends to have a bias which reflects that. I was able to look at various other documents, though, and piece her life together. Of course, the fun for the historical novelist is filling in the gaps!

So how accurate is the book, historically?

I’ve only played with the chronology once, and I do mention that in the author’s notes. I gathered all the known facts and stuck to them. When using less reliable documents I’ve been careful to make suggestions, rather than assertions. I’ve filled in the remaining gaps as plausibly as I can. I’m a historian - when I read historical fiction, I understand that I’m reading a story, but I also want to be able to trust that it’s based on fact, and I hope that readers of ‘Queen’ will be able to experience that too.

Having studied this period for your degree, did you find it easy to turn it into fiction?
My historical training helped, in so far as I knew where to look and who to ask when I was researching the actual history. I had the story in my head and had developed the characters, but what I found difficult at first was the conflict between the historian in me, who knew that certain characters were present at specific events, and the writer in me who decided that these people didn’t move the story on and played no part in the drama - I hated leaving real people from history on the cutting-room floor! I also quickly realised that whilst I knew about the political history, I knew very little about how folk actually lived, so I had to do an enormous amount of research into their diet, the tools and weapons they used, their farming techniques and the sort of clothes they wore.

Can readers expect settings that they might recognise from things like Beowulf?

Not really, although in Anglo-Saxon England you’re never far away from a mead-hall! The period known as the ‘Dark Ages’ spans six centuries, which is about the same length of time from the Tudor period to present day, so there were great changes between the beginning and end of that era. My characters could perhaps be better described as ‘Early Medieval’ - they have sophisticated governments and laws, and there are no monsters, elves or dragons. I’ve tried to make the dialogue authentic but, unless I had to, I did not use Old English place-names. I’ve also simplified the personal names wherever possible, or given nicknames to make them easier on the eye. Although these people lived a long time ago, I don’t want them to appear too distant, or other-worldly; I wanted to give an insight into their world, but bring them ‘alive’ in the process.

Are you working on anything else?

My second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, was released a few weeks ago and is also set in Mercia, about 50 years after ‘Queen’ ends. Once again, there are some very strong female characters in the story of the earl of Mercia who was pivotal during the reigns of four Anglo-Saxon kings. I’ve completed a third novel, also set in Mercia but a few centuries earlier, which I hope to release later this year or early 2017. I’m pleased to say that ‘Queen’ was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016 and I’m currently working on a novel which won a prize in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, although this one is not an historical novel.

Learn more about author Annie Whitehead