Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Fourth Musketeer - an interview with J M Aucoin



So tell me about your new book, and why I should immediately rush out and buy it.
Sure! Honor Among Thieves is the first book in the Hope & Steel series. It takes place during 17th Century France, a few decades after the Wars of Religion decimated the countryside and a couple decades before the famed Musketeers were formed.
Under Henry IV’s reign, France was starting to bounce back from those wars. The country was a little more stable financially and life was returning to “normal.” But Henry also really hated the Hapsburgs and dreamed of taking their dynasty down.
The decades of religious warfare also meant there were a lot of soldiers without employment. Some lacked skills for traditional working life; others just preferred to make their way with lead shot and steel, so many turned to banditry to get by.
Hope & Steel series is what happens when the bubbling political climate of early-17th Century France meets the harsh reality of a soldier’s post-fighting life. And all with a heavy dash of swashbuckling adventure.
We follow Darion Delerue, a former soldier turned highwayman, who has only two things of value—the hope in his heart and the steel at his side. We also follow Jacquelyna Brocquart, a young lady-in-waiting for the queen, who gets a rude awakening about the less than glamorous life at court. After a heist on a royal ambassador goes wrong, both Darion and Jacquelyna are thrown into a political plot to undermine the crown which could send France straight back into civil war.
There’s plenty of political intrigue rooted in historical events, intertwined with a fictional plot and fictional characters. And there’s also plenty of swordplay for readers who, like me, enjoy a little steel to warm their blood.

You've been compared to Alexander Dumas. Who are your writing heroes?
I’m pretty sure I pulled a Tom Cruise and started jumping on the couch when I originally read that comparison. Dumas is definitely one of my favorites, so I was floored to be considered in his company.
I think anyone who gets into the historical adventure genre has read The Three Musketeers. It’s a classic that really helped define the swashbuckler genre. For me, that story was very influential growing up.

I’m also a huge fan of Rafael Sabatini. Captain Blood and Scaramouche are some fantastic swashbuckling reads. Sabatini really knows how to turn a phrase. I swear he’s left none of the good lines for the rest of us poor authors.
I also love the Captain Alatriste series by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Arturo has taken the classic swashbuckling genre and has given it a little more of a real world feel. A lot of time the swashbuckling/adventure tales tend to have happy endings, but actions have consequences in the Alatriste series. It’s fun and refreshing.
I really try to merge the high adventure and political intrigue of Dumas with the witticism of Sabatini and the realism of Pérez-Reverte. That’s what I’m aiming for in the Hope & Steel series.

Are you a swordsman who writes, or a writer who fences? And does it help?
Tough question! I think I’m equal swordsman and writer. I’ve been a huge fan of the historical adventure genre ever since I was a little lad. I used to watch reruns of Guy William’s Zorro on the Disney Channel every week. I must’ve dressed up as Zorro for Halloween for five straight years as a kid. It was around this time that I also saw Disney’s Three Musketeers adaption with Tim Curry as Cardinal Richelieu. I guess we can blame Disney for my swashbuckling obsession.

So swordplay is what turned me on to reading and writing. But it wasn’t until college that I started learning about swordplay. I started taking foil fencing classes as well as stage combat classes, so I learned both the practical and the entertainment aspects of swordplay. A little later I discovered the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). I enjoyed foil fencing, but being able to actually duel with folks in full period garb while using full-length rapiers and daggers really sung to the side of me that wanted to be d’Artagnan growing up.
Knowing swordsmanship definitely helps when writing swashbucklers. Readers expect a little sword play, and knowing what you’re talking about is a good thing. I’ve read some pretty atrocious swordfights written by people who don’t really understand how the sword works on even a bare basic level. Not that I really want to read (or write) a super technical fight scene either. It still needs to be entertaining and help further the story. There needs to be a balance between the realism of two people trying to skewer themselves with sharpened steel with the good ol’ fashion fun nature of what’s expected from the genre.
- my weapon of choice is a 36” munitions quality cavalry backsword, Birmingham steel. What’s yours?
I’m a big fan of my 37” Spanish Bilbao rapier. I had it custom made by Darkwood Armories, based after the sword Viggo Mortensen uses in the Alatriste movie adaption. I use it when fencing. As soon as I picked it up, I knew I had found my true blade. I do love me some backswords; I need one for my collection.
I also have a strong adoration for wheellock pistols. Those things are just works of art – from the aesthetics to the mechanics.

What are you writing at the moment?
I’m in between stories, you could say. I’m plotting out the next Hope & Steel novel and also world building for a possible fantasy series. Some fans have been bugging me about when the next Jake Hawking Adventure is coming out, so maybe I’ll add that to the queue.
Like a lot of writers, I have more ideas than time to do them all. Bah!
What are your plans for the future?
Keep writing. Keep fencing. Keep costuming.
Creating historical costumes (especially 17th Century) and cosplays is a fun hobby of mine. It sort of ties into the writing and fencing. While writing is fun because I’m creating something out of nothing, costuming is fun because I’m making something tangible and with my hands. And I get to look dashing as hell afterwards.
I’m also going through Capoferro’s fencing manual and writing up my interpretations of that, which can be read on my historical research/SCA blog for folks who are interested in the technical aspects of swordplay. My regular swashbuckling blogging can be found on my author blog.


... and finally, the importantest question....
Roundhead or Cavalier?
O0o0o0…. Tough question!
When it comes to fiction I usually like to root for the rebels. My protagonists tend to be people who like to live outside the conventional norms of society. So you’d think I’d side with the Roundheads. But I’m going to go against my own grain and say Cavalier. And I’ll say it’s because I like The Tavern Knight by Sabatini. Sir Crispin Galliard (aka the Tavern Knight) was a Cavalier.
I hope that’s the right answer and that we don’t have to fight over it. Although, if we do, I’ll go fetch my rapier! :D

Connect with J.M. Aucoin!



Sunday, 4 October 2015

Meet the Staith - Abbots Staith exposed


 The Abbot's Staith in Selby is, in the new book, the site of Sir John Belasyse's powder store in the city, and the scene of one or two of the climactic moments of the book. 
I don't think it was ever used as a powder magazine, but even so, I've taken some artistic licence with this fascinating building. In recompense, the first month's royalties of the book will be going to the Staith for the restoration fund of the building - so buy The Smoke of Her Burning and support the Staith!



The warehouse building currently known as the Abbots Staith, near the river Ouse in Selby, has been interpreted as being from the 14th century in a survey done in 1995, based on the style of the stonework. The building is shaped as a shallow capital 'H' with narrow slot windows to the ground floor frontage and leaded lights to the second floor which would have had internal shutters. At 132 feet 3 inches long by 60 feet 7 inches wide it is slightly shorter but wider than the nave of Selby Abbey (140 feet by 58 feet). All the doors face the river, except for one in the front central bay which has a flat or 'French' arch and would have been the main access route from the river to the monastic complex.



The name Staith or Staithe refers to a jetty or wharf and there are two ancient monuments on the site, the warehouse building and the wharf area. Most of the latter is now covered by a 20th century jetty, but the piles and timbers can be seen underneath this at low tide. The building itself is listed Grade II* and the English Heritage Buildings At Risk registers calls it a former monastic wool warehouse, reflecting the main trade of the medieval abbey in the town.

Formed in 2014 the Abbots Staith Heritage Trust are a group of volunteers dedicated to preserving, restoring and bringing the building back into use for the community of Selby. Some of the volunteers have spent many hours researching the Staith and have found references to in old texts dating back to the 15th and 16th century, including one that calls it the ‘Great Staithe’.

In more modern times a two storey Georgian building was added to the front west wing of the Staith warehouse. This was known as the Counting House, as it was where taxes and tithes were paid. The land and building were owned for a time in the 18th and 19th centuries by both Lord Petre, lord of the manor of Selby and by the renowned surgeon and naturalist Jonathan Hutchinson, who was born in a cottage immediately behind the warehouse in July 1828, which is now the office for Westmill Foods. There is a blue plaque on the wall celebrating this fact.

For much of the 19th century and into the early 20th the warehouse was part of the Abbot’s Staith Flour Mills, that business passing through various owners, before the building was sold in 1911 to George Woodhead and Sons, Seed Merchants.

During the years from 1911 to 1995 the Counting House became the shop front and small offices for Woodhead Seeds (later larger office space was created on the top floor of the west wing of the warehouse itself). Woodhead Seeds moved out in Spring 1995 and since then (aside from a brief use as a car radio outlet in the shop front) the main building has remained empty, though it is still owned by a member of the Woodhead family.

On April 20th 2015 Abbots Staith Heritage Trust took a one year licence on the Counting House as a base to promote their vision for the restoration of the building. More information can be found on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, with a full website coming soon.




Friday, 2 October 2015

Fifty Shades Of..... Gender Bias and Sexuality in Historical Fiction

Isn't it reassuring to know that all those heroines of historical fiction, who found that they just weren't maternal, or meek, or submissive enough - that they identified themselves more strongly as masculine, that they cut their hair, or wore breeches, or climbed trees - they were all sweet, frilly girlies, really: because with the right man, you can get better!

Five hundred years ago - three hundred, two hundred years ago - women weren't allowed to identify with masculine gender stereotypes. We conformed, to the Gospel according to St Paul; we learned in all subjection, we were respectful, we covered our hair and our bodies as we were taught, or we paid the price of social ostracism.
You know the old chestnut of the girl who dresses as a boy to follow her soldier lover to war and bring him home safe? Don't get many of them in the 17th century. In fact, I don’t think I know of a single example of a woman who enlists as a soldier during the English Civil Wars - maybe that's because women were following the drum anyway, in the guise of camp followers, or maybe it's because until the creation of the New Model Army in 1645 no one was looking, or maybe it's because 17th century women were more than capable of fighting the good fight in skirts, viz. Lady Derby, Brilliana Harley, Elizabeth Lilburne, I'll stop now but I could keep going all night. The 17th century highwaywoman Moll Frith lived and dressed as a woman - as attested by her nickname, Cutpurse Moll - and anecdote reports that at one point she robbed Thomas Fairfax, shot him in the arm and killed two of his horses. Which must have pleased him no end…

But it's not really till the 18th century that we start to see the "mannish" woman appear - Kit Ross, who followed her man into Marlborough's Army and then decided that she quite liked the Army life and lived as a soldier for the better part of ten years, serving in two different units undiscovered; Anne Bonney and Mary Read, that pair of unglamorous pirate captains, who were as fierce and merciless as any of their masculine counterparts - what's interesting is that most of the 18th century women who disguised themselves as men disguised themselves successfully, and lived within close male communities undiscovered for long periods, but that they also were considered as equals of their male counterparts. Kit Ross was officially pensioned off, despite the discovery of her gender; Anne Bonney and Mary Read were sentenced to an equal punishment to their male counterpart, Calico Jack Rackham.

So, you know, there are hundreds of years of history of women living successfully as men, competing with men, existing forcefully in a male-dominated society. Succeeding, on their own terms, against men. (If piracy is your thing, obviously.) Being acknowledged as comrades and peers, by men. Women in Restoration England were running their own businesses, their own coffee-shops, although they weren't permitting female customers in those hotbeds of political discourse and dissent. Women in 1649 were presenting petitions to Parliament saying…"Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood?"

And now, four hundred years later, we're denying this again in mainstream historical fiction.
The tomboyish heroine, that old favourite of romantic fiction, who's not satisfied by a life of conventionally girlish pleasures, and who finds freedom and self-expression as an equal in masculine company - she changes, of course, when she meets the right man. (He "makes" her a woman, as often as not. *shudders*)

All those strong women, who lived and worked and loved as women in their own right, who ran businesses and ships and companies of soldiers in their own right - they just needed a man, to make them want to give up their independence and be hobbled by skirts again?
Seriously?

I was talking to Kim Wright from the arts programme Art2Art on Swindon 105.5 FM earlier on (just thought I'd drop that one right there, me on the radio, not swearing, not once. Hardly. Much. At all) - he had the idea that this sudden gender conventionality in fiction was a reaction against women's freedoms in World War 2, where women were suddenly doing men's work, men's equals, threatening established masculine domains, and the womenfolk had to be groomed a little into getting back into their boxes after the war. And, you know, perhaps the reason for the popularity of that aggressively masculine, Chandleresque stuff was that a lot of women were comfortable within those boxes, too. 

And that's fine, if that's what works for you, but it's not right for everyone. We're still promoting the idea of binary genders - of girlie girls and butch men - and pushing the myth that if you are not a pink princess, or a brave hero, you can't have romance, you can't have adventure, you can't be successful. That to be atypical, in fiction, makes a character a curio, a freakshow. There was a Paul Verhoeven film called "Flesh + Blood" in which Rutger Hauer's mercenary band contained, amongst others, two sniggering and not always very kind best mates, who were rough and tough, who always had each other's backs, who were a pair of loutish young gentlemen always spoiling for a fight.
At the end of the film one of them is killed and you realise, by the response of the other, that these two testosterone-fuelled hooligans were a deeply loving and long-established couple.
And it's not relevant to the plot, it's just a throwaway scene where actually, these two brawling roughs are seen to have a capacity for deep emotion - but it's two men who are in love with each other. 

Does that matter? Yes. They're a pair of aggressive street bravos who've systematically gone through life as their own two-person gang, and now all of a sudden one of them is alone, and we see a vulnerable, frightened side to him. 
Does it matter that it's two men? No. Or it shouldn't. As Het Babbitt points out to Hapless Russell in "A Wilderness of Sin", "There is, in my opinion, an insufficiency of people loving each other in this world, dear. As if it were something to be ashamed of."

Takes all sorts to make a world, as they say in Lancashire, but if you're going to write, the world is at your fingertips. Women, and men, in history fought hard to live outside convention, knowing they faced exposure, ridicule, social ostracism, even death, for disclosing themselves. And they still do, we have not yet come so far. We owe it to readers to write those men and women back into historical fiction, not as plaster saints or  wayward sinners, but as real, rounded human beings. Just lke us.

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Awarded for Excellence in Research by 17th-Century Specialists

Awarded for Excellence in Research by 17th-Century Specialists