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).

Books

basically, i’m doomed

It feels like there’s never enough hours in the day to read everything I want to. I know. It’s a trial and a burden. I don’t know how I bear it.

Also, this isn’t technically a ‘TBR’ list. This is a ‘I’m trying to read all these books at once WITH VERY GREAT SUCCESS’ list.

Unholy Spirits by Gary North

This was recommended to me and so far I have read the dedication and the part of the introduction. I have a free afternoon coming up on Saturday. I intend to devour this book then.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes and Joe Layden

Honest to goodness, though I adore the Princess Bride, Cary Elwes name drops so. many. times. He’ll say someone’s name and then give you their wikipedia entry. Also: a history of Haddon Hill. Or Hall. I can’t remember. I had to put my kindle down and stare blankly out into the ether after that one.

I thought I left that all behind when I stopped reading G. A. Henty.

Superfreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Sephen J. Dubner

It’s fascinating. It’s wonderful. I’m learning about Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. Also: it’s taking me forever to finish because I keep forgetting that I’m reading this book.

What Love Is This? by Dave Hunt

I started reading this book, oh, years ago. I’ve restarted it. I read a chapter each morning. I think I’ve been in the middle of it for eons. EONS!!! It’s got to the stage where I’m ticking off chapters, just to feel like I’m making progress.

It’s a good book – I’m enjoying it, it’s making me think (… no jokes, please and thank you) and does raise big questions but at this moment … I’m convinced that it’s like the NeverEnding Story. As in: it never ends.

this may *look* like a grin but it’s probably actually a grimace

The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World by Tom Feiling

I am half-way. I have been half-way through this books for a long time. A longggg time. That is all I wish to say about it. At one point, I picked it up and thought: huh, this is really concentrating on cocaine … I wonder if it’ll discuss other drugs?

It is literally entitled ‘How Cocaine Took Over the World’.

A Wind From The Wilderness by Suzannah Rowntree

This is probably me being a coward. I read the first chapter, which was ace. HOWEVER, I then started the next one and realised that I was probably going to be emotionally scarred by the book.

I grow too attached to the characters, you see. It always happens. I don’t like it when a) bad things happen to them or b) they make bad decisions.

And guess what? No matter how many times you glare and cringe at the characters … they don’t respond. They don’t change their minds or get out of harm’s way. Ugh. I know. Who’d have thought?!!

happy reading!

Books, On Writing

i kidnapped Suzannah Rowntree for an interview

I have Suzannah Rowntree, author of Ten Thousand Thorns, with me today. Well, not really because … we happen to live on different continents. But with the wonder of the internet, she is here, with me on my blog …
 
// 1 //
WHEN DID YOU THINK ‘LET ME SET THIS FAIRY TALE IN CHINA’ AND WHAT BROUGHT IT ABOUT?
Haha! OK, I’ll be honest with you: it was while I was watching a movie called THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM with my sisters. I know, a lot of wuxia fans detest that movie as a lamesauce American homage to the genre, but then again, it does have that epic Jet Li/Jackie Chan duel in it, and none of the great Chinese wuxia films have that, so. I’d always loved these adventurous, fantastic, and beautiful martial arts films (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and HERO must be the ones most familiar to Western viewers), but it was while I was thinking about the philosophical underpinnings to Taoism as they cropped up in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM that I got the idea of telling Sleeping Beauty in this style. It occurred to me suddenly that in China, a princess wouldn’t be cursed to sleep for a hundred years: on the contrary, she would meditate, not sleep, and it would be this wonderful spiritual blessing. Or would it?
 
This would also give me the opportunity to write a Sleeping Beauty retelling that was absolutely chock-full of kung-fu action scenes. I mentioned the idea to my bro the same evening, and from the look of awe and anticipation that crossed his face, I knew it was a winner.
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// 2 //
THE WISE SAYINGS – HOW AND WHERE DID THEY COME FROM? DID YOU MAKE THEM? CAN I STEAL YOUR BRAINS? WERE THEY INSPIRED FROM SOMEWHERE?
I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t make them up myself. I don’t have that level of brains! I just spent a lot of time trawling through collections of Chinese proverbs online. Aren’t they marvellous? I did this because my Chinese beta reader told me that one’s martial arts master is supposed to speak in wise riddles, which the disciple is then supposed to figure out for himself. And if you can figure out what your martial arts master is saying, that proves you’re worthy to be his disciple. I thought the best way to get that effect and make it authentic would be to pepper his dialogue with gems of Chinese wisdom.
 
// 3 //
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE TEN THOUSAND THORNS?

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The actual writing wasn’t too bad, though with other projects in the mix it took about a year from beginning to end. I took a month to write the first draft, a month to write the second draft, and another month to apply the edits suggested by my first-round beta readers. It usually doesn’t take me this long to do edits, but I had a Chinese
beta reader whose critique was very challenging and far-reaching. He gave me amazing help.
 
// 4 //
WHAT WAS YOUR WRITING PROCESS LIKE?

I tend to plan on a macro level. I’ll start with a concept and some research. I watched a lot of Chinese films and read two very long classic wuxia novels to prepare, which took me months. I also watched the director’s commentary for CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (yes, I spent a lot of my “work” days watching entertaining foreign films. I did not feel guilty about this at all).

I kept detailed notes of interesting things I noticed that seemed relevant to the story’s theme or a fun part of the martial arts story world: blood brothers, shocking betrayals, intense tea nerdery. Once I had all these details under my belt, I was able to construct a basic plot outline that expressed the theme and drew on all these elements that I enjoyed, hopefully also weaving them into something new. Then it was just doing the writing itself, which I usually do in a boring manner from nine till five with the assistance of silence and a succession of cups of tea. giphy-6
One thing I did do differently for TEN THOUSAND THORNS was to adopt a slightly different writing style than usual. It’s a bit more pulpy, a bit more humorous, and draws on the diction (in English) of Chinese friends and literature.

 

// 5 //
I WAS REALLY IMPRESSED BY THE TITULAR ‘THORNS’ – DID THE IDEA FOR WHAT THEY WOULD BE SPRING INTO YOUR MIND OR WAS IT A TAKE ON THE FAIRY TALE YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO DO?
Aha! That particular concept just came packaged along with the genre. Once I connected the dots between Sleeping Beauty and wuxia, it was obvious what I was going to do with the thorns. The Chinese proverb “crouching tigers and hidden dragons” itself refers to the fact that you can never tell when someone or something will turn out to be highly dangerous and/or well-trained. Just watch any wuxia film and you’ll see that this is true. And that’s all I’ll say about that 😉

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// 6 //
WAS THERE A PARTICULAR SCENE THAT YOU REALLY ENJOYED WRITING?
Oh help. All of them? This novella was pure joy from beginning to end. Maybe I particularly loved the scene with the old lady at Wudang, and all of Iron Maiden and Clouded Sky’s duels in the first half. They had such fun interactions.
 
// 7 //
IF YOU COULD TIME TRAVEL – RIGHT NOW – TO ANY HISTORICAL TIME PERIOD, WHICH WOULD IT BE?
[A WORD OF WARNING – I HEAR JUNE 1348 IN ENGLAND IS A BAD YEAR TO PICK]
Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere in 1348. I even avoid fiction set during that time because I know it’s not going to end well, especially if it has ominous words like “domesday” in the title. No, I’d like to visit Jerusalem in 1183 to do research on my OUTREMER project. Saladin called it “a garden of paradise” and I would just love to see the amazing architecture and mosaics and fabulous clothes they all would have been getting around in.
THANKS FOR STOPPING BY, SUZANNAH!

profile

When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, writing historical fantasy fiction informed by a covenantal Christian perspective on history.
 
If you like the fiction of CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Stephen Lawhead, or ND Wilson, you’ll probably enjoy her stories too.
Books, Recountings

recountings: ten thousand thorns

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TEN THOUSAND THORNS 

by Suzannah Rowntree

Princess Morning Light meditates in a hidden temple surrounded by ten thousand thorns. Guardian of a long-lost sword skill, the princess is destined to wake after a hundred years to return justice to the world.

Or so legend says.

As the Vastly Martial Emperor extends his brutal domination, rebel leader Clouded Sky flees the capital for the safety of his martial sect at Wudang Mountain. Meanwhile, a renegade martial artist seeks a hero to awaken Morning Light. As bounty hunters and imperial guards close in, Clouded Sky must determine who he can trust – and who may be planning to betray him.

An action-packed retelling of Sleeping Beauty in the style of a Chinese martial arts epic!

Ah, I really enjoyed this one.

THE WRITING

The writing is clear and crisp, and it truly draws you in; almost as if you are watching a movie – seeing the shadows, hearing the clash of weapons, and watching the cast interact.

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Some of the descriptions were quite perfect:

‘she moved as lightly as a dandelion seed blowing on the wind’

THE CAST

The characters are delightful, Iron Maiden in particular. Sometimes heroines can really get on my nerves (you know what I mean … ‘I AM A STRONG, POWERFUL WOMAN WHO CAN FIGHT BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE. I ALSO HAVE AS MUCH CHARACTER AS A CARDBOARD CUTOUT. NO! LESS!) but thankfully, such was not the case in this book.

What really was nice, was the way that Rowntree wrote her – skilled, but not flaunting it. Feminine, but more than capable of handling herself in a fight. The balance was right, and so I was really able to enjoy reading about her.

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Everyone was saying Very Wise And Poetic Sayings, which gives me life goals because I would very much like to drift around and say things like ‘truly, one happiness scatters a thousand sorrows’ (…and then crack out some ‘Awkward-Octopus-Strikes-Thrice-And-Falls’ martial arts move, afterwards, of course.)

THE PLOT

At first, I was a little overwhelmed (gee, doesn’t that make me like a swooning heroine!) with the amount of names, details etc there were – but that could be because my brain has the retention skills of a colander.

But once I caught the gist of the story and memorised names and who was who and what was what … it was clear sailing.

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There were some PLOT TWIST! moments that I enjoyed, and I found the way that the fairy tale was retold to be unique and quite clever.

TO SUM UP …

Altogether, I found this story to be an action filled martial arts adventure, garnished with the perfect touch of swashbuckling charm.

And also, my word, it felt like Rowntree had throughly researched the setting for her book – so hats off and kudos to her for that.

amazon // goodreads

DISCLAIMER: I received this book free of charge in return for an honest review. I would have happily written a review in return for a dragon, but I wasn’t offered any.