On Writing

i kidnapped suzannah rowntree for an interview (again)

Guys! Guys! I did it again! I kidnapped Suzannah Rowntree for ANOTHER interview – marvel at my prowess! Gasp at my skill! Today, we have a veritable feast of scintillating conversation, conspiracy theories about the Crusades, hot tips on researching historical novels and A BOOK ON OFFER AND ONE FOR FREE.

Right now, as you inhale (yes! INHALE!) this post, I shall be in Italy. What I’m doing in Italy, I’m not terribly sure – it’s the day before we’re leaving and I haven’t got a full itinerary ready yet. The hotels are booked but … as for the rest? Who knows. It’s going to be an adventure ‘fo sure.

So while I’m in Italy, Suzannah’s in Australia and you are seated (comfortably, I hope) in a country which I’m certain is lovely … let’s dive in and cross-examine have a nice chat with Suzannah …

Your current series Watchers of Outremer is set against the backdrop of the Crusades, what drew you to this time period?

I’ve always been in love with medieval history, but I was never really interested in the Crusades until I read Ronald Welch’s book Knight Crusader, a classic YA novel dealing with the battle of Hattin and the subsequent Third Crusade – think Richard the Lionheart versus Saladin.

I already knew about Richard and Saladin, of course. What I had somehow missed until then, was why the Third Crusade happened. The reason was that Saladin had just come within an ace of destroying a Frankish-ruled kingdom based in Jerusalem which had occupied the Holy Land for nearly a century since the First Crusade. The main character of Knight Crusaderwas a Frankish boy whose family had lived in Palestine for generations, and who had never even seen Europe. My brain exploded, because I’d always had the impression that crusading was something you went home from.

Why did some of them stay? How did they build this incredibly diverse and unique culture? What was life like for them? What was their relationship with the locals, whether Syriac Christians or Arabic/Turkish Muslims? All the stories I grew up reading about the crusades mostly focused on what happened when you got home from them. None of them focused on what life was like for the people who had roots there, either as Franks who decided to settle down and raise families and build something lasting or as people who had always lived there and were experiencing this unexpected new state of affairs with overlords from across the sea. “Someone should write a story about this,” I thought. It took a while to realise that I was going to be that person.

Little known conspiracy theory about the Crusades – GO!

Ha! OK: who ordered the murder of Raymond II of Tripoli? In the mid-1100s he was knifed by Assassins within view of his gates as he was returning from escorting his wife Hodierna and sister-in-law Melisende, who was ruling Jerusalem as its queen, a short way on their road south.

Hodierna was a famous beauty who inspired the songs of troubadours as far away as France, and one of them was even said to have sailed to Tripoli to die in her arms. Raymond was terribly jealous of her and kept her locked up, which turned their marriage sour. So she was actually leaving him at the time…but when Raymond was knifed, messengers caught up with Hodierna and her sister, and Hodierna then returned to Tripoli and ruled it until the young heir, her son Raymond III, came of age.

So…did Hodierna order the hit on her husband? Some people certainly think so. In fact, I doubt this is true: at the time the Assassins didn’t usually act as hitmen for hire, and Hodierna was already leaving Tripoli with her powerful sister, destined for a comfortable life in the neighbouring kingdom – she didn’t need to kill her husband to get free of him. Much more likely, Raymond was killed by the Assassins in revenge for his allowing the Templars to build a fortress in the mountains of Lebanon, near the Assassin stronghold.

They say that history repeats itself – do you see any repetition in what happened with the Crusades in today’s age?

Great question! Yes…and no? 

In one sense, people are always people, and the things they worry about and the way they act doesn’t change a great deal. In another sense, the Crusades were in so very many ways, a manifestation of the most unique things about medievalism. 

My focus, when I’m writing the novels, has been more on faithfully depicting the people as they were rather than drawing parallels to today’s political or religious motifs. That said, one beta reader for The Lady of Kingdoms (Book 2) told me she felt convicted about ethical fashion after reading about textile workers being kept as slaves. That had never crossed my mind, but it’s true that patterns of oppression and exploitation persist in today’s world. Another contacted me to say that the way some characters complacently referred to the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem as a particularly holy entity with God’s special favour, was uncomfortably close to American exceptionalism. Well, obviously, I’m not American and I don’t think that way about either my own country or about America! But when she pointed that out, I couldn’t stop seeing it. The temptation to presume that one’s own tribe has some kind of special divine status that will excuse the vilest deeds is one that humanity across the centuries is prone to.

But I think it’s also important to emphasise that the Crusaders have very limited relevance to world politics today, especially since they have become mascots for things, like white supremacism and racially-motivated terrorism, that would be totally alien to their worldview. Crusaders were primarily religiously motivated in a way that people just aren’t today. They couldn’t care less about banning burkas (their women also wore black veils) or shariah law (scholars believe that Muslim law courts in the crusader states were able to apply a limited form of shariah), and the crusader states spent far more of their time in negotiation or peaceful coexistence than they did in war. It’s preposterous that the Christchurch mosque shooter, for instance, described himself as a “Templar”! To be a Templar, you had to take an oath of poverty, chastity, and obedience to what was at the time a very conservative religious/military institution that answered directly to the Pope. In a nutshell, while there is a growing discomfort today between extremist Islam and extremist white supremacy, it would be false to trace this directly to the crusades. Although both take inspiration from the crusades, they are both drawing on romanticised and weaponised mythologies more than real history. 

Do you have a favourite stage of the writing process? If so, what is it? 

Absolutely my favourite stage is when I’ve written the darn thing and people are telling me how much they loved it.

But my second favourite stage would have to be the drafting process – when the words are flowing and I’m living intensely through the story and feeling super excited about it. There’s a lot of drudgery on both sides of that, but it’s hard to beat the sheer joy of creative flow.

What’s your LEAST favourite stage?

The last few revisions are always the worst. You’ve done all the work and you just want to move on to something new, and you have all these beta readers and editors getting nitpicky about details and every tiny change seems to take immense quantities of blood, toil, tears, and sweat, to coin a phrase. I call it the Grumpy Stage.

What’s your favourite book of 2019?

Haha, you know the answer to this one: M.L. Wang’s The Sword of Kaigen.It’s an Asian-inspired indie fantasy that caught me completely unawares and blew my socks all the way off at the start of the year. It hasn’t exactly been all downhill since then, but I think it’ll be a long time until a story sweeps me away like that again. The heroine is to die for, and it’s one of those books that simmers on a slow, intense burn for pages and pages before erupting into something utterly breathtaking.

[Honestly – that was one of my favourite books too. Can’t thank you ENOUGH for the recommendation.]

What’s a top tip for researching a historical novel?

Don’t wait until you’ve answered all your questions to start writing. But also, start early and don’t stop researching until the book is done. Everything you read will give you inspiration and guidance at every stage of writing and editing.

It also helps to be honest with yourself upfront that you’re guaranteed to make an embarrassing mistake somewhere. It’s OK. It happens to everyone. 

What’s happening soon that you are excited about?

Well, Book 2 in this series, The Lady of Kingdoms releases on the 26thof November! I’m particularly thrilled about this one because it’s probably my favourite instalment of the whole story (which will be 9 books long, DV). Multiple beta readers have told me that it left them feeling slightly giddy. So if you’re up for a mild literary intoxicant, don’t miss this one! It has celestial dragons and people getting assaulted with textiles! 

Thank you, Suzannah for stopping over. Of your own free will.

On a side note – I highly recommend signing up to Suzannah’s newsletter. With juicy tales from history and banging book recommendations, I quite enjoy them.

Suzannah Rowntree lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, researching and writing historical fantasy fiction.

The Watchers of Outremer series began with A Wind from the Wilderness (on sale for just 99c this month!) and Children of the Desolate (free on the author’s website).