Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Time Travel to Ancient Worlds 

I recently spent two months or more, reading Prehistoric and Biblical novels.   The talent of the authors'  enables them to make those far-distant times magically come to life. In lucent and compelling prose, the framework of the known history comes together and allows us to imagine life far beyond anything we can experience.. The challenge is to give believable life and emotions to those imagined peoples.None of us is the sister of a god, or a fisherman on the Irish Sea, or a woman in the time of the Old Testament.. There is no easy frame of reference.

Coincidently, today brought a wonderful interview of Ann Swinfen, by Stephanie Hopkins at Layered Pages. I had read and was captured by her book, The Testament of Mariam, about the family of Jesus in Galilee.

Something is drawing me into this time which has never claimed my interest before. Of course, this encourages me to read more by Ms. Swinfen!

But for now I am happily lost in the Syrian desert, with the nomads who first formed Israel or the seas of prehistoric fishermen in ancient Ireland.


 Ann Swinfen
Ann Swinfen

A little about myself

I’m half English, half American by birth, the American bit being of French Huguenot descent. My childhood was spent back and forth between England and the East Coast of America, though from my early teens I’ve lived permanently in Britain – now on the East Coast of Scotland. It seems I must have some kind of affinity with the east wind, certainly I have with the sea. I went up to Oxford on a classics scholarship, then switched to mathematics, also while at Oxford marrying a fellow student, historian David Swinfen, and taking a postgraduate maths degree. After the birth of our fifth child I took an honours degree and PhD in English Literature – you’ll begin to see a pattern here. What was I going to do when I grew up?

My husband’s income as an academic not being over-generous for rearing five children, I worked at a variety of jobs (often several at the same time): part-time academic, journalist, software designer, manager in the technical author division of an international computer company and so on. All of this very time-consuming and not allowing much space for creative writing, though I continued to be a voracious reader, as I had always been.

When the youngest children were launched at university, I walked away from all my jobs except the part-time academic teaching and said, ‘NOW I AM GOING TO WRITE!’ And that’s where I’ve been ever since. My first three novels were published by Random House, but I’ve now become an independent author-publisher and couldn’t be happier.

A Running Tide Cover MEDIUM WEB

Why I write.

My sister was quite a bit older than I and loved playing school. Guess who was the teacher and who the pupil! In fact, she taught me to read when I was three, and I’ve been grateful to her ever since. Living in a world of stories, I felt it perfectly natural to make them up myself and in fact I still have a story I wrote, typed (!) and illustrated when I was five. There’s not much of a story arc, but the impulse was there.

At ten I was quite ill, had a long time in hospital and confined to bed, and missed a year of school. In the end this was no hardship, for I read and read, and made up more stories. When I went back to school I wasn’t kept back, but had a wonderful teacher who encouraged my writing. By this point I had become fascinated by history and by early writers like Chaucer and Langland, read the Renaissance dramatists and poets, dreamt of becoming a writer. When I was fourteen I remember that I wrote two stories which satisfied me. One was set in Britain at the time of the Roman invasions, the other during an exceptionally hard winter in fourteenth-century East Anglia.

Then in my later teens I became hyper-critical of all my prose writing and tore it up, though I did write poetry. At that age, I think one’s critical faculties leap ahead and one’s lack of self-confidence tends to undermine the creative faculty. Then came the demanding student years and early marriage. As a young mother with a large family and several jobs I was mentally and physically exhausted. Looking back, I’m glad now that I didn’t publish any novels in my twenties and thirties, because I’m sure I’d be embarrassed by them now!

The Anniversary Front Cover

So the impulse, the desire, was always there from an early age, just waiting for me to emerge from the manic years and have enough energy to sustain the long-term commitment to writing novels.

My interest in history is an intrinsic part of my life, for I feel that both individuals and society are fundamentally shaped by what has gone before us. We may think that we are smart, modern, technically savvy, twenty-first century people, but the millennia of human history saturate our being. Although my first three novels (The Anniversary, The Travellers, and A Running Tide) are superficially “contemporary”, in fact all three contain layers of history. The lives of my characters are profoundly affected by their own history and the history of their societies.

The Travellers Front Cover

Since going independent, I have published five uncompromisingly historical novels. The Testament of Mariam is set in the first century and is narrated by a fictional sister of Jesus. It’s not a religious book, but an attempt to recreate the physical reality of that peasant family in Roman-occupied Galilee. Flood takes place in seventeenth century East Anglia, when the fenlanders had to fight against unscrupulous developers to save their lands and way of life. I am also writing a series set in the late sixteenth century featuring a young physician, Christoval Alvarez, who is coerced into becoming a code-breaker and agent in the Elizabethan secret service run by Sir Francis Walsingham. Published so far: The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez, The Enterprise of England and The Portuguese Affair. At the moment I’m at work on the fourth book in the series.

Christoval Cover MEDIUM WEB

So from those first attempts at historical fiction in my early teens I have moved on to full-length novels in which I try to explore not merely the lives of people in the past, but to view them as part of a long human continuum, of which we ourselves are also a part.

Enterprise of England Cover MEDIUM WEB

The Portuguese Affair Cover MEDIUM WEB

How writing impacted my life.

I suppose you could say that my life has always been moving towards this writing profession. My rather odd educational background isn’t quite so odd when viewed in the context of my writing. Study of the classics certainly contributed to the writing of Mariam. Christoval’s skill in code-breaking is not unrelated to my mathematical studies. And by writing historical fiction I am able to pursue my passion for history.

When I first had enough time and energy to devote to writing full-length novels, it was like the release of a head of steam which had been building up for a long time. Interestingly, my publisher at Random House said, after reading The Anniversary, that she could not believe it was a first novel. In a way, it wasn’t, since I’d been writing in my head all those years.

It was enormously exciting to be accepted as a novelist and published by a leading international publisher (though I had already published a non-fiction academic book). However, over the next couple of years I became somewhat disillusioned by the commercial publishing world – the delays, the lack of control, the offhand and sometimes downright rude behaviour meted out to authors. After a particularly infuriating case of this in the latter months of 2013, I decided to go independent. I set up an imprint name, bought my own ISBNs, and set out as an independent publisher. My agent had decided she wasn’t interested in historical fiction anymore, so I first published Flood, the book she had not only turned down – she hadn’t even bothered to read it. And it has proved very successful, with many readers demanding a sequel. Her somewhat high-handed assessment that “nobody reads historical fiction” has been sounded refuted. Once Flood was safely launched in paperback and Kindle, I turned my attention to reissuing my backlist (the rights had reverted to me) and publishing my other historical novels.

Flood cover pb Amazon UK

It has certainly had an impact! Since the beginning of this year I have published or reissued eight novels, finished one started last year and written one wholly new novel. They are all now available in paperback and Kindle. I’ve published five short stories in Kindle, some of which previously appeared in magazines or on the BBC. I designed the covers for these short stories myself, but used a couple of designers for the books until settling down with Jane Dixon-Smith. I am now writing the fourth book in the Christoval Alvarez series, which I hope to be able to publish before Christmas.

The joy of being an independent author-publisher is the fact that you are in control! You make the decisions not only about the content and format of the novel itself, but about cover design, blurb, publication date, pricing, any special offers, and so on. There is the obvious drawback that you have to do the promotion and marketing yourself, which is something I think most writers don’t much enjoy. However, another perk is being able to track your sales day-by-day (so you can see whether a promotion is working, for example). With traditional publishing you wait months and months before you have any clear idea of what is happening. Oh, and as an indie, you are paid every month! In that other publishing world you can wait up to two years. No advance, of course, but they were getting smaller and smaller anyway. Now I keep spreadsheets, plotting income against expenditure, keeping an eye on how the enterprise in developing. This is work, a profession, and has to be treated seriously.

One of the most exciting ways in which all of this has impacted on my life has been making the unabridged audiobook of The Testament of Mariam with Hollywood actress Serena Scott Thomas. It’s been a wonderful experience and Serena has become a good friend, loving the book and saying she didn’t want the recording to end. A year ago, could I have imagined something so extraordinary would happen? I don’t think so!

The Testament of Mariam MEDIUM WEB

The advice I would give to beginner writers.

What I always say to beginner writers, including my students, is that the most important quality for a writer after talent and imagination is persistence. I have known so many people who manage to write a first chapter, or perhaps just a first scene, of a novel. They then go back over it and over it, editing, polishing, and despairing that it will never be perfect.


It won’t ever be perfect. A first chapter is just a sketch, a first tentative step into your story. You absolutely must persist. Carry on until you reach the end of the story. Only then can you view it as a whole, understand what it is you have actually written. It may be that you will jettison that first chapter. Or you may need to rewrite it because of what occurs later in the story. Once you have the whole body of the novel to work on, the significance of the parts becomes clear.

The analogy I always use is that of a sculptor in marble. You start with your crude lump of stone – your basic idea for the novel. You then hew the first draft out of the stone, which gives you the rough overall appearance of the finished work. Each of your subsequent edits refines and polishes your “statue”, your novel, until it is revealed in all its glory! If you stop after the first few pages and struggle to make it perfect, it would be like a sculptor polishing and refining a big toe of his statue, before he had created the overall figure. Madness and a total waste of time.

Of course, it’s difficult to persuade beginner writers of this, but there you are. I speak from experience!


Self-Publishers Show Case

Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors

Ann Pic award 1

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

 Finding hidden gold: the Celts beneath our feet

Archaeology can bring historical fiction writers the best stories. This one will fit in nicely as I write the second book of Spiral in Time. A working title is Spiral: Shaman's Mask, which continues the story of archaeologist Germaine O'Neill and her incredible voyage into the 5th Century BC and the life of her ancestor, Sabrann ap Durot.

The mass burial described in the link features nameless Celts, but it is still the kind of newly found gold historical fiction writers love to find. I can imagine stories to speak for these long-dead bones. It is a burial, however hastily made, and rituals surrounding burials change over time. The most informative are graves where symbolic or actual objects are included. Grave goods breath life into nameless people and teach us what they valued. This gorgeous gold necklace might have been found in the burial chamber full of rich artifacts in the first  book of Spiral and would not have been unusual to accompany a high status queen on her journey to the Otherworld.

Historical fiction writing always includes the verifiable archaeological artifacts and locations, but in the deep past there is plenty of room for some educated  guesses - especially in a prehistoric  society. Reliant on archaeology, great gaps exhist that even the most knowedgeable cannot fill.

My interest sprang to life when I read about this strange grave finding in France. Was it a plague, a massacre? There is still a big question mark in my mind as my work in progress develops. But it's nice to have some open-ended situations to add to the book.


Sunday, May 25, 2014

Finding the Celts: A Writer's Periplus


Finding the Celts: A Writer’s Periplus


Voyage underway!  



Well, I couldn’t go to Russia after all. A few months before my grand adventure, triple bypass heart surgery and then 2 more years of surgery stopped all plans of going to a rough, primitive archaeological dig, 300 miles from the nearest basic medical facility that only offered bandages and aspirins as treatment options.

My life-long dreams needed to change direction, adapt to the new direction of the wind.   

Yet as I healed and contemplated new directions in my life, I could not stop thinking about the Caucasian, tartan-clad Celtic girl in the Taklamakan desert—how on earth did she get there? 
I  renewed my commitment to write her story. I loved reading historical fiction (which helped me heal! But that story is for another time), and I vowed my story would be as accurate as I could make it. Obsessive to a fault, I  would start at the beginning, determined to learn everything I could about these mysterious people, these Celts.

I had a lot to learn, beginning with the name. What exactly was a Celt?
And where did they come from?
Since antiquity many had made comments about those legendary barbarians:  Hecataeus of Miletus, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Plato, Aristotle, Strabo, Cicero, Livy and Pliny the elder, just to name a few. But they were not very informative and often contradictory. Herodotus gives us the most reliable information, that is until we come to the one source that reigns head and shoulders above all the others: Gaius Julius Caesar. For Caesar wrote from first person observation, which trumps all the others who did not.

Admittedly written by a politically ambitious Roman general, Julius Caesar gives us almost all the sparse array of facts known about the Celts, beginning with their name. Often referred to by a variety of names in the classical sources: Galli, Galatae, Keltoi, and Celtae, Julius Caesar in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (about the inhabitants of Central Gaul) specifically says: ‘we call them Gauls, although in their own language they are called Celts.’

Julius Caesar in Gaul

Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar
Lionel-Noel Roger 1899

Finally! And Celts they remained. 

Ephorus, writing in the fourth century BC had classed the Keltoi/Celts as one of the four great barbarian peoples (and we are not sure what he based this on). This implies they were a distinctive people. The Celtic archaeologist and scholar, Anne Ross states “No matter how insubstantial their political unity may have been they had a common language, and traditions, a distinctive material culture, and closely related religious ideas.”And this covers wide areas of Europe.

In the beginning 800-400BC
No one knows for sure where they originated, but there is one place commonly stated as most probable: Hallstatt in Germany. Our knowledge then grew to include the discoveries of the La Tene (Celtic) culture. From this area, it is hypothesized the Celts spread in many directions. 


 An overview of the Hallstatt and La Tene cultures. The core Hallstatt territory (800 BC) is shown in solid yellow, the area of influence by 500 BC  in light yellow. The core territory of the La Tène culture (450 BC) is shown in solid green, the eventual area of La Tène influence by 50 BC in light green. The territories of some major Celtic tribes are labelled. Map drawn after Atlas of the Celtic World, by John Haywood (2001: 30–37).Wikipedia.

Hallstatt is famous as the site of ancient salt mines that reached down far inside a mountain. Salt being an excellent preservative, archaeologists have found many objects left by the miners that would have disintegrated in some other environment.
miner's shoes circa 800BC
and a scrap of plaid woven material
 In a previous post I mentioned the plaid fabric on the mummy and that a connection was made with fabric from Hallstatt. In her fascinating book, The Mummies of Urumchi, archaeologist Elizabeth Wayland Barber makes the observation "the textiles from one of these Inner Asian sites look astonishingly like the peculiar plaid twill cloths found in the only place in Europe where ancient perishables have survived well, the Bronze Age salt mines at Hallstatt in the Alps in Upper Austria The Austrian plaid twills had been woven by ancestors of the Celts ..."

It was  a remarkable addition to my quest for the Celts and my questions about the strange caucasian- like mummies. Much evidence now exists to support the Celts radiating out frorm Hallstatt across Europe, and further into Turkey. Archaeologists and linguists tracing the Indo-European language tree conclude that the desert settlers of the Taklamakan evolved from their Celtic forebearers. This is a general theory and like much of archaeology has its dissenters. Two  books delving into this  are The Tarim Mummies, by J.P.Mallory and Victor H. Mair and  In Search of the Indo-Europeans , by J.P. Mallory.

Doing research is like offering cat mint to the historical fiction writer, and I was now thoroughly addicted and prowled along every path, book, or resource cited by other writers.

I was an addict and I knew it. And as various story lines about the Celts evolved and consumed my thoughts, I realized I had left my past life behind and would never turn back.  The unexpected turn in my life that I had thought disastrous was, I now realized, a marvelous gift from the universe.


Saturday, April 26, 2014

Meet my Main Character (actually two main characters!)

Tinney Heath, author most recently of A Thing Done, set in medieval Florence, that most magical of cities in Italy, has tagged me to play a writerly game of “Meet My Main Character. 
Product Details

Since all writers are in love with their characters, I could not resist.
But first, it’s not a simple matter to create a character, much less the main one in your book: it is a lot like how I do research for a book.

It starts with the Big Bang.
The big bang theory or God?That cosmic moment when I first find something, or it finds me, when something happens—a word, a photo in a magazine, an over-heard conversation—and I am caught with an idea, a story. The story begins in a small, cellular form that soon starts growing, amoeba like, and then I am trying to find all the information in the world until I am saturated, about the time (for now I know when it happens), and then the country, the land, and then the tiny historic and unknown people who start jumping out of history books and my imagination, and soon grow into living, breathing creatures with a life of their own.

Then I look up one day and find this person looking out at me from this immense backgound of information, who is as much of her time and place as I can make her and my main character springs to life.

1) What is the name of your character? Is she fictional or a historical person?

 As the main character in my book, Spiral: Book One of the Spiral in Time, Germaine O’Neill is a fictional modern woman of 2006. Being a visual person I thought you might want to see how I imagine her, as portrayed by the great Cate Blanchett.

 Of course she is Germaine, not Elizabeth! But this photo captures some of the essence of Germaine.
But Germaine has a shadow; Sabrann ap Durot, her genetic ancestor in the deep past is also a main character with her own unique story to tell, and Sabrann’s story takes place in the 5th century BC.

Two women, two different lifetimes, but ultimately they are one.

2) When and where is this story set?

Germaine’s story takes place in London and Dorset, England in 2006.

Sabrann’s is set in the prehistoric world of England and Phoenician Carthage in the Mediterranean, in the 5th century BC.

3) What should we know about her?

Germaine is directly linked to her long ago ancestor by their shared mitocondrial DNA. This is only passed on by women to their direct descendants. It is a way modern geneticists can now trace the history of people and discover where they have originated. And, only women’s DNA can tell us this!

Germaine O’Neill is an archaeologist of Celtic history, devoted to her career and advocate for all things Celtic. She is at a crossroads in her life having recently divorced a womanizing husband and rashly clashed with her new department head about the origin of the Celts—so her career is in deep trouble.

Her ancestor, Sabrann ap Durot, is a clairvoyant Druid, who sees into peoples lives by touching them and is feared by all. She is the “Clan Mother” who starts the long line of women that leads directly to Germaine. Clan Mothers are described in the wonderful book, The Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes, which inspired me to write about mitochondrialDNA.
Product Details

4) What is the main conflict?

Germaine takes safety risks at an archaeological site in hopes of finding great discoveries to salvage her endangered career, is injured as the site collapses, and  near death, while in a coma, time travels back to her ancestor’s time.  Germaine becomes  Sabrann ap Durot and lives her ancestor’s life and discovers her current time problems began long ago in the 5th century and now must be resolved in her modern lifetime. How will she reconcile the two lifetimes? What lessons will she learn in her past life?

5) Is there a working title for this novel and can we read more about it?

The title is Spiral: Book One of the Spiral in Time, and was recently published and is available on Amazon. The link  below gives a brief overview of the story and through the “Look Inside” feature you can read the opening, a prologue, where an explosion at a clandestine, modern-day Druid burial sets the stage for Germaine’s hurried excavacation.

I hope you will join me for the story of how the past affects Germaine’s life in the 20th century, and I thank you for visiting.

 To continue this game, I have tagged the following authors to post about their main characters. Please check their blog sites for dates.


Gemini Sasson – who writes contemporary fiction and also historical fiction set in medieval Scotland and England.


R.Ann Lochlann – author of The Child of the Erinyes series, which follows a woman and her two lovers through time, beginning in the Bronze Age and finishing up in the near future.


Juliet Waldron – author of many historical  novels set in different time periods, full of grit and passion.


Monday, April 7, 2014

Where does inspiration come from? 

 Sitting across from me at a kitchen table in Berkeley, sat a woman who had no idea that what she was about to say would change the whole direction of my life.

A noted archaeologist and founder of CSEN, The Center for the Study of the Eurasian nomads, I first met Jeannine Davis-Kimball through the San Francisco chapter of the AIA, the Archaeological Institute of America, where, like a lemming drawn to water, I estatically followed my life-long compulsion to learn about the past. Jeannine and I had been talking about the origins of the various nomadic tribes she studied - a very complex and mysterious subject. 
And, of course, talking about my interest in archaeology. 

Archaeology...My lifelong passion! I yearned to search for hidden things and loved the thought of the vast, unknown historical lands of the past.  Perhaps I was born with some strange latent gene that drove me always to the edges and concealed parts of history. Once, on a 5th grade class trip to the Buffalo Museum of Natural History, I was so curiious about the fascinating (to me!) exhibits that I wandered around behind the dioramas and finally found someone, a man who looked like he belonged there, and asked - How do I get to do this, to find things like those, and I timidly pointed to the exhibit of bones behind me. And true to the time, the mid-fifties, he sternly said it was not something for a girl to do - way too hard, and you needed to spend many years in school.

Crushed, my courage disappeared and I scurried back to my tour group - but never forgot. A shy, secretly adventurous child, with no available role models, I then followed societies norm (marriage children etc.) but my heart remained in love with history and the now forbidden thrill of finding something buried in the earth, from who knows when or how.

But that day in Berkeley I was at a giant crossroads in my life. My youngest child had just entered college. I was already exploring writing as a possible new career through the Romance Writers of America (where I tried and failed miserably as a romance writer), but happilydiscovered historical fiction writers like Diana Gabaldon (time travel!!)and, best of all, the fabulous Dorothy Dunnett. They were called Romance writers then, but were oh so much more to me!
I was also independently studying archaeological illustration as a way to bring together my two lifelong interest of art and archaeology, for at that time in my life getting a degree in archaeology was nigh impossible.  I imagined that my new skill set would take me to exotic digs.

Jeannine knew all this and said "Why don't you come along to Kazakhstan and be our staff artist for the summer dig. It will be good experience."
Wow - would I ever! Jeannine's dig was just across the border from southern Russia, about as exotic a place as I could imagine. And no pet or child required I be present and caring for them. Except for my work with PBS, for the first time in my adult life, I was free from daily responsibilities.

And then she added the fateful comment, the coup de grace for the rest of my life.

"Oh, and here is something Victor Mair found in Western China that might be of interest," and handed me a magazine. The image of a mummies head filled the cover. Now I never had any great interest in mummies, in fact, I thought them rather macabre. But the magazine flipped open to a picture of a a brtilliantly outfitted woman, a 2,200 year old mummy, splendidly dressed in furs, a tall hat and incredible woven, colorful clothes.

You could see that she had once been beautiful and  the article said her features were clearly Caucasian. What?, Caucasian! And she was probably a Celt. I felt my memory hackles rise up at the word Celt. Celts were found in Germany, in France, in Ireland - not in China!

Other photographs showed finely woven, plaid cloth. The plaid and weaving technique was almost exactly as those found of the same time period in Hallstadt, Germany  - in central Europe.

But this was Xinjiang, China. How did this very Celtic girl get here, so very far from her homeland?

Destiny comes knocking at the door and wears many different guises. I became obsessed with finding out more about these strange, lost Celtic people discovered in the Taklamakan Desert in far western China. And obsession knows no moderate way. I began a path of research and discovery. Elaborate stories formed one after the other about the Celtic girl's adventures, as I marched down a path with no clear end in sight. Where did her life begin? I just wanted to know more. And still more.

My fate was firmly sealed with a Celtic spiral planted firmly on my psyche and I could never turn back. And so began an almost twenty year journey.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A new year, a new Periplus . . .

A Periplus - a  sailing manual of some antiquity - the record of a voyage along a coast, of what was discovered . . .  

January 2014
Although this blog has been neglected for a while by cosmic forces beyond my control -a challenging major move from a longtime home to a new environment -

I hope you will rejoin me this  year as I embark on an exciting journey both professionally and personally: a time of change, of new beginnings and my own voyage of discovery. And an exciting year is ahead as 2014 will see the publication of my historical time travel novel Spiral, due out in February.

Here I will offer thoughts about the worlds of archaeology and Celtic history, of prehistoric England, of the paths I followed and the many (always unexpected!)doors opened to me by my research, and occasionally the nature of time and time travel—all the threads that combined to weave the tapestry that became Spiral, Book One of the Spiral in Time.

The ship shown above that I have commandeered for this post is a reconstruction of a 4th Century BC Greek merchant ship found off the coast of Cyprus. I love the eyes that allegedly protected ancient ships from everything. A hint of more to come in Spiral, this February!

So please stop by often and any comments are always gratefully received.  All my best New Year wishes to you - 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A new day, a new cover !

After wrestling with several technical glitches I am hoping to set this blog back on track. So today is a wonderful time to send out a little post publication notice and give the world a peek at the cover of Spiral.I hope you'll look it over and let me know how you feel about the overall look. We are aiming for a publication date sometime in the last week in September.  Best regards to all.