Thursday 22 September 2016

The Author in my spotlight is .....Joanna Courtney

I'm really delighted to welcome back to Jaffareadstoo the historical fiction author 

Joanna Courtney

I am a huge fan of Joanna's first book The Chosen Queen and  was delighted to be given the opportunity to read and review, The Constant Queen which is her latest historical novel in the Queens of Conquest series.

22 September 2016
 A bit of book blurb...

Elizaveta is princess of Kiev, but that doesn't stop her chasing adventure. Defying conventions, she rides the rapids of the Dneiper alongside her royal brothers, and longs to rule in her own right as a queen.

Elizaveta meets her match when the fearsome Viking warrior Harald Hardrada arrives at her father's court seeking fame and fortune. He entrusts Elizaveta to be his treasure keeper, to hold the keys to his ever-growing wealth - and eventually to his heart.

Theirs is a fierce romance and the strength of their love binds them together as they travel across the vast seas to Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. In 1066, their ambition carries them to Orkney as they plan to invade England and claim the crown

To celebrate the paperback publication day of The Constant Queen, Joanna has written a special guest post for Jaffareadstoo which outlines her thoughts about the pros and cons of writing a novel based on Anglo-Saxon history...

When it comes to writing about the pre-1066 era there is one huge issue – the massive gaps in our knowledge, not just of the events but also of the people, the attitudes and reasoning behind the big dates. There are very few primary sources from this period and those we do have are either sparse, contradictory or overly imaginative so we’re never sure what’s actually true. Historians have a field day debating what happened when and why, but for authors trying to establish a factual spine for their novel it can be a minefield. That said, however, whilst these big gaps in the facts are a frustration for a historian, they are also a gift for a novelist, for I can fill them in with imagination - or, rather, with responsible interpretation.

I cannot in my novels write exactly what did happen but it’s very important to me to write what could have happened. What dates we do know need to be accurate and I try to use what is reported of people to create characters who work in a convincing way. For example, we know that King Harold went rushing down to Hastings to meet William before he had really summoned full reinforcements. If he’d waited a few days he’d have been far more likely to win, so understanding why he took that call is vital to telling a good story.

This information gap is especially problematic for women. It’s rare for the births of such girls (or even boys) to be listed so we often have to work out what children people had by tracing them back once they pop up as marrying someone 18 years later. We can get a glimpse of names, the odd snippet of gossip, or a signature on a charter but there is little else. 

When learning about the three heroines of my Queens of the Conquest series - Edyth, Elizaveta and Mathilda - it’s been up to me to interpret their characters the best way I can. Elizaveta of Kiev, for example, is known to have sailed to the Orkneys with her husband Harald Hardrada when he launched his attack on England, presumably so she was there to hasten to his side when he claimed the throne. That, to me, spoke of a brave and adventurous woman and I shaped my Elizaveta accordingly.

When writing about Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans we are up against this tricky wall of a term - the ‘dark ages’. I hate it. They’re only ‘dark’ because we know so little about them; we are the ones in the dark. At the time, these people lived lives every bit as sophisticated, cultured and socially advanced as their later Tudor ancestors. Indeed, the intrigues and political conflicts around the dramatic events of 1066 were at least as complex as something like the Babington Plot. 

These people were not illiterate idiots with little more on their minds than ploughs and swords and ale. Their halls and churches were magnificent, albeit it mainly carved in wood so sadly lost to us now. Their law and government systems were highly developed and their clothing and particularly their jewellery was astonishingly intricate and elegant. Getting people to understand that, however, can be hard.

It was also a far wider world than people imagine. Water was the fastest means of travel, be it across seas or down rivers, and the Vikings in particular were masters of the water. In The Constant Queen the action moves from Medieval Kiev, to Constantinople, Norway, Iceland and, finally, the Orkneys and Stamford Bridge where Harald Hardrada met his sad end. Researching all these places took some doing but threw up wonderful settings for my characters. 

For example, Kiev in the mid eleventh century was an astonishing place – a vast walled city atop a huge set of hills with highly developed architecture, including magnificent halls, churches, fountains, and even huge brass statues. It was heavily influenced by Constantinople, a city of such riches that all contemporary chroniclers raved about it, and the river-route between the two was travelled by thousands every year. These people were not stay-at-home villagers with their nose in their corn. Traders swarmed all over Europe, spreading culture, goods and news and my high-born characters are a part of this connected continent. That makes them hard to research but exciting to write about.

Readers, myself included, love the Tudors for their glamour – they are historical ‘Dynasty’ as the wonderful if rather lurid program ‘The Tudors’ proved. I think there may be an underlying feeling that the sixteenth century is when people started to be recognisably like ourselves but that’s just not true. Evolution is a long and complicated process and for humans the 1000 years back to pre-1066 is a drop in the ocean. Yes, communication networks and transport and cooking/heating methods were different but people – the important part of any story – were still very much the same. Social norms were also different but the core emotions of love and fear and desire and ambition were surely identical and that’s what I look to explore in my novels – not the pedantic differences between then and now, but the exciting similarities.

So, in essence, the biggest ‘con’ of writing about this period is the lack of information we have about it, but conversely this is also its biggest ‘pro’ as it leaves room to create vibrant and hopefully believable stories. The Anglo-Saxon period was not a duller or ‘darker’ time than later periods and is no less fun to read about. I hope my novels can transport people back to a period they may know very little about and offer them both some new historical knowledge and, most importantly of all, gripping stories.

©Joanna Courtney

Find out more about Joanna on her website by clicking here

Follow her on Twitter @joannacourtney1

Huge thanks to Joanna for such an interesting and informative guest post and for sharing her thoughts about the pros and cons of writing about Anglo Saxon history.

The Constant Queen is published in paperback today and is available to buy online and from all good book stores.

My thoughts about The Constant Queen..

Before reading The Constant Queen, Elizaveta of Kiev and her husband, the Viking warrior Harold Sigurdsson, or as he is more commonly known, Harold Hardrada, were a complete mystery to me, and if I am perfectly honest neither of them ever appeared on my radar as historical figures I wanted to get to know, so what has been so refreshing about reading The Constant Queen is the fact that I am coming into a period of history which is completely new to me, and so, because of that, I could settle into the story without any preconceived notions of who did what, why and when.

When Harold Hardrada appears in Kiev, at her father's court,  in 1031 Elizaveta is still very young and even though in her early interaction with Hardrada,she shows a maturity beyond her years, there is still enough of the precocious child in her to want to run unbidden through the long corridors of the Kremlin. What the novel then goes on to explain is how the relationship between Elizaveta and Hardrada develops, and also of the initial conflict which occurs between Elizaveta and Hardrada's other spouse, Tora Torbergsdatter, who is always going to be her love rival for Hardrada's affections.

The story is so much more than just romantic historical fiction and even though it was interesting to see how the relationship between Elizaveta and Hardrada developed, it was also fascinating to learn the background behind Hardrada's later involvement in the Battle of Hastings. Beautifully researched and impeccably detailed this is one of those strong historical fiction novels which is impossible to power through, not because the story isn't interesting, as believe me it is, but because there is so much absorbing detail to take in. Sweeping between Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and the Orkneys, the novel opens up a historical period of which I had scant knowledge and which on closer inspection I found to be hugely compelling.

Writing about the strong women that history has overlooked seems to be the trademark of this talented historical fiction author. With effortless ease she infuses her female characters with such a strong sense of purpose that you can’t help but be drawn, quite forcibly, into their lives. And as the pages turn, you are transported back to the eleventh century, back to a dark and dangerous time when to be a woman in a man’s world was racked with danger.

Whilst it is possible to read either of the books thus far in the Queens of Conquest series as standalone novels, I think that there is much more to be enjoyed in reading both novels in order. I am sure that the third book in the trilogy about Matilda of Flanders will be equally compelling.

Best Read with.... Tankards of strong ale and generous slices of roasted duck

My thanks to the author for sharing her work with me and also to Jess at Macmillan for her help with Joanna's guest post and also for my review copy of The Constant Queen.


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