From the back of Fire and Sword
Born in Glasgow, Louise Turner spent her early years in the west of Scotland where she attended the University of Glasgow. After graduating with an MA in archaeology, she went on to complete a PhD on the Bronze Age metalwork hoards of Essex and Kent. She has since enjoyed a varied career in archaeology and cultural resource management. Writing has always been a major aspect of her life and at a young age, she won the Glasgow Herald/Albacon New Writing in SF competition with her short story 'Busman's Holiday'. Louise lives with her husband in west Renfrewshire.
Welcome, Louise, and thank you for joining us on The Review to talk about your book Fire and Sword.
I am really interested how authors choose their book covers. I wonder if you could tell our readers how you decided on your dynamic book cover for Fire and Sword, for example, the choice of colours, the font of the title, and the images.
Fire and Sword was published via the traditional route, and I’ve been lucky that my publisher - independent small press Hadley Rille Books - is a rare example of a publishing house that still commissions original artwork for its book covers. They also engage their writers in every stage of the concept and design process.
Their priority was to produce a cover that would be equally eye-catching and engaging as a thumbnail on a very small screen as it would be on the book itself – this, of course, was something that would never have occurred to me as a writer. I worked with regular HRB cover artist Thomas Vandenberg: he read the book then suggested both the scene that he considered to be the appropriate choice, and the concept of the mood and the palette of the colour scheme.
It was a really exciting process for me, because it was really the first sign that the book really was going to be published. Both artist and editor are based in the US while I’m in Scotland, so many late night e-mails were exchanged in which I forwarded all sorts of scanned images ranging from late 15th century armour to ideas for Scots medieval vernacular architecture. (Note, for example, the downwards-sloping quillons on John Sempill’s sword – that’s a typically Scottish form!)
You clearly have a passion for Scotland and Scottish history. How did you decide on your starting point for your novel?
I suppose it was inevitable that I’d turn my hand to writing historical fiction eventually: I started out writing science fiction, studied archaeology to help find inspiration then ended up working in Scottish archaeology. Through the years, I’ve discovered many engaging stories round my neck of the woods that remain sadly unknown and unappreciated, and one of my prime motivations has always been to encourage more interest in the history and archaeology of the west of Scotland.
The Sempills were an obvious choice for source material. Since they were prominent in my local area, I was literally able to walk out of my front door and immerse myself in the landscape inhabited by them centuries ago. When I started to research their line, my interest was piqued by a brief throwaway line in a local historical account which stated how John, first Lord Sempill’s father Sir Thomas Sempill died defending the king (the murdered James III) at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488. John, however, was made a lord of parliament a year later by James III’s successor, James IV.
I wanted to see how someone could transform their fortunes so quickly, but this proved impossible by referring to the local accounts alone, because they’re often quite gossipy in their tone and they almost seem to ignore the historical and political context within which these events were taking place. It was only when I juxtaposed the local historical accounts with what was happening at the national level that I started to unearth numerous interesting possibilities and leads. Not enough to write anything more than the most speculative of factual accounts, but certainly enough to structure the narrative of a historical novel.
Writing historical fiction allows an author carte blanche to a certain extent, to mix fact with fiction. How do you go about creating a balance between the two; for example, the perceived knowledge of who they were, and the three-dimensional characters you create in your novel?
I make it my aim to stick to the facts, as they are known or have been recorded. However, the documentary sources for this particular period are fairly sparse, which is good news for a historical fiction writer because it allows more flexibility.
The writing of Fire and Sword involved two main parallel avenues of research. The first investigated the historical events taking place at the time. However, the second was equally important: I had to try and get a handle on the characters, because it’s a whole lot easier to get your head around the history when it involves people you actually care about.
For the nobility, I used the genealogical accounts to establish a network of alliances – who were their parents, who did they marry, who did their children marry? I also used any additional information I could find to try and build up a more detailed idea of these individuals’ personalities. John Sempill, for example, was a builder; he moved his family seat from a cramped 15th century towerhouse at Ellestoun near Howwood to what we can only assume was a more commodious building adjacent to the loch at Lochwinnoch. He built a collegiate church – was this because he harboured some deep-seated feeling of guilt and felt he needed to take extra care to avoid damnation, or was he just unusually pious?
He also founded a school for choristers and employed a harpist, so he was patron of the arts as well as architecture. Perhaps he made these efforts because he was trying to impress his contemporaries, or perhaps he was a man who had been touched by the humanist and renaissance principles that were beginning to take hold and he genuinely believed in trying to build a better world.
Hugh Montgomerie, by contrast, had been already acquitted of murder by the age of 30, and he regularly polished off those he considered to be a threat to him. And it’s never those loyal to him who are accused of these crimes – it’s invariably the man himself. Was he a psychopath, or just subject to rash decisions and a bit of a wild tearway?
But he was also a very complex character, active in Scottish politics throughout the reign of James IV and into the reign of James V. He finally retired at the grand old age of 78 and at the zenith of his career in the 1530s, he’d served for a short period as vice-regent of Scotland. During his long lifetime he appears to have enjoyed a satisfying and fruitful marriage with his wife Helen Campbell. Of his many children, only one was illegitimate. He was also the first secular, non-royal landowner in the west of Scotland to introduce glazed windows in his family seat.
In creating the characters, I gathered together all these little tidbits, and added what was known about these individuals' military and cultural activities. Soon they started to take on identities of their own. All the while, I was researching the world in which they lived: the landscape, the literature, the music, the food. I studied a variety of sources, from Scottish burgh surveys and archaeological excavation reports, to historical syntheses and accounts written by a variety of authors and academics (indeed, the process is still ongoing).
Often I ended up with more questions than answers – how impoverished was Scotland during this period, how culturally backward, how closely did it emulate France as opposed to England – and there came a point when I just had to take a leap of faith and say, “Well, this is how I think it might have been.”
Once I finally got to know the characters, it was a case of just letting them do their own thing. So far, they’ve almost written the story themselves. And yet, at the same time, they’ve been quite happy to meet up at the appointed places, at the appointed times, and, more importantly, to behave in a manner that recreates events exactly as they are reported to have happened.
I would like to ask you about your female protagonist, Margaret Colville, who comes across as a very independent and interesting woman, but at the same time vulnerable. How did you go about creating her persona, with only her history to go by?
Margaret Colville is probably an ideal case-study by which I can illustrate the whole creation/recreation. Like many late medieval women, we know almost nothing about her. She is recorded in historical documents as John, first Lord Sempill’s first wife, and she appears to have borne him four children before her death in 1504.
We also know that she was the daughter of Sir Robert or Sir William Colville of Ochiltree – it’s sometimes difficult to establish how the relative generations relate to one another because the various accounts get things muddled sometimes. If you think things through in contemporary terms, all it takes is for one frazzled clerk under a lot of pressure to get the names mixed up at the time of writing, and the unfortunate historian is cursed with an insurmountable problem for the rest of eternity.
According to the genealogies I studied, she was the only daughter in a family of five, so I worked on the assumption that this might mean she was cherished and slightly over-indulged, but (perhaps more crucially) that she would have grown up able to hold her own amongst male siblings.
The broader historical narratives indicate that the secretary to Queen Margaret (James III’s wife) was a man named Robert Colville, and that he died at Sauchieburn fighting for James IV, while his son, also named Robert, was appointed director of Chancery immediately following James IV’s accession to the throne. Clearly, Robert Colville the courtier wasn’t directly related to the Colvilles of Ochiltree – he represented a cadet branch. We don’t know if he was a churchman, or a career lawyer – career lawyers were already well established in Scotland by this time, John Ross of Montgrennan being an excellent example.
Taking these known facts into account, it was time to explore the circumstances of the marriage. For this I was reliant very much on analogy with wider historical syntheses. The late 15th century was a very transitional period, still quite medieval in its outlook, but with modern resonances – were we dealing with an arranged marriage between two ambitious families, or were we looking at a typical example of the post-medieval Scottish model, where the groom marries very late and often puts financial advancement before securing succession by wedding a wealthy heiress?
Clearly, Sempill was being politically astute by linking his line with the Colvilles (remember he’s having to re-establish himself after his family committed a serious faux pas by backing the wrong pony at Sauchieburn...), but was this opportunity the result of negotiations carried out by John himself, or by his family (traditionally, the mother is instrumental in choosing the marriage partner)? The Rosses were influential with King James III, the Colvilles with his queen – therefore, I concluded, it was quite possible that the match was made at an earlier date, before the hostilities broke out between James and his queen, and subsequently, his son Prince James.
The final link in the chain was the death of Sir William/Robert Colville of Ochiltree in the winter of 1488/9 – it seemed quite likely that the political disarray following Sauchieburn would have left the family who held the winning hand seriously reconsidering their options. But such an event may well have left a once-favoured daughter beleaguered and the next generation anxious to be rid of her.
Years later, I stumbled across another genealogy which suggested that Margaret had a sister named Janet. This of course threw the whole theory into disarray, but with known facts and historical opinions contradicting each other on a regular basis, I’m quite happy to stick with the version that suited the plot.
The writing routines of authors are many and varied. Perhaps you could tell us about your writing routines, Louise. For example, do you always write in the same place, at the same time of day?
I work in commercial archaeology by day, so my writing routine is ad hoc and sometimes sporadic, according to the demands of fieldwork, real life or whatever. This used to stress me a great deal, but I’ve learned that - for the sake of my sanity - I have to work to different timescales. If I feel like writing, then I’ll go with the flow – on a good day or night, I can write up to 2500, even 3000 words. These days, this doesn’t happen very often, and if I’m not firmly "in the zone," I just don’t bother trying.
There are plenty of things I can be getting on with: editing, working on publicity, whatever. With my second novel now lodged with the publisher and my third well underway, I’m in a position where I don’t have to madly chase my own tail trying to achieve impossible deadlines. As long as I can look back and see some progress every month, I’m happy. And if the Muse deserts me, I refuse to worry unduly, because it’ll be back sooner or later.
I think that sometimes one of the worst things you can do is force yourself to do something when you’re stressed or exhausted or just not in the mood. The term "flogging a dead horse" comes immediately to mind...
Did you write your manuscript long hand first, and then transcribe it to the laptop, or did you write straight to the laptop?
I was writing long hand onto paper throughout my childhood and teenage years but a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Now I find it much easier to work directly onto the computer, though I moved onto laptops only recently. But I do regularly carry notebooks around with me, so I can write notes, scribble down scenes, wrestle with synopses and the like.
Studying for and completing both an MA and a PhD, is a great achievement, Louise, so when you write, do you employ the same disciplines that you utilised for your degrees?
I think it was probably more intellectually challenging to write the novel, to be honest, because so much of the thesis involved observation and analysis of material objects, with theory forming just a small part of the whole. And when you’re writing a thesis, your field of interest can be very, very narrow.
But the underlying principles were definitely the same, and my archaeological background has been crucial as far as the novel-writing is concerned. As a student, I was raised in the world of theoretical archaeology and post-processualism, the exponents of which don’t seek to impose meaning on the past, but rather seek to engage with the past so that any conclusions remain receptive to change and renegotiation as new information becomes available.
The normative schools of the 1930s-50s and the processualist schools of the 1960s-70s broadly argued that the actions of human beings were constrained either by their physical environment, or by the cultural norms within which they were born and raised. Exponents of post-processual archaeology argue instead that while human agents are of course operating within the constraints of their physical and cultural world, at the same time they are both acting upon and within it, either reinforcing established ideologies, or challenging them, or even overturning them on occasion. This active participation eventually leads to transformation.
When this approach is used in historical fiction writing, it erases the idea of predestination which can so often flavour the narrative. I’ve read a lot of books where events seem to unfold through the eyes of an omniscient and fully informed observer who almost seems to be viewing events in hindsight. But the characters whose actions are making history don’t know what’s going to happen to them fifteen years, five years, even one month down the line –they’re just making it up as they go along, while at the same time they’re doing their best to do what they can for themselves and those closest to them.
Proofreading and editing are as important as the writing, so how do you go about this; do you rely on an editor/proof reader?
I spent years learning the craft of editing at the Paisley Writers Group, and it’s now something I’m very comfortable with. The process of transforming a raw draft into a polished final product is a long and arduous one; it requires much hacking and burning, reading aloud, and endless re-reading and often re-writing.
But I’d be reluctant to unleash my work upon the world without the input of a good editor, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m very happy and relieved to be operating within a traditional publishing environment. It’s important to work with an editor who is sympathetic to your aims as a writer: when things work well, they’ll transform your work into the final product that you wish you’d written in the first place, and you don’t even notice what they’ve changed.
As for copy-editing.... the more eyes you can spare to check your text, the better. And the more times you can read through it yourself to try and catch the waifs and strays, the better, too. No one is infallible...
Thankfully, working with a small press means that I don’t have to worry about such matters, which is great! My editor deals with these things, and I can spend more time writing...
Good and objective beta-readers are worth their weight in gold, as I’m sure you will agree. How much do you rely on their feedback?
I always viewed my fellow writers in the Paisley Writers Group as beta readers par excellence. In recent years, membership of the group has fallen away, and relying on critiques via a writers’ group can be problematic when you’re trying to generate new work on a regular basis.
I think it’s important to rely on an editor for the bulk of the nuts-and-bolts editing, though I like to make sure that when I send my work out to be edited, I’ve already reached the stage where I cannot possibly see any way of making it better. I’d be embarrassed with anything less. But beta-readers are important for road-testing the work from the reader’s perspective, seeing whether it works in its entirety for such matters as consistency, pace, plot, etc.
If you’re relying on your beta-reader to edit your grammar and punctuation, then you’re being unfairly reliant on their goodwill by expecting them to make up for your own lack of attention to detail. Though if they spot typos and the odd bit of repetition, it’s very useful, because there’s always something that slips through the net.
Is there anything else that you would like to add to this interview Louise, for example, what lies in the future for Louise Turner?
Fire and Sword will, I hope, be the first in a series of books which charts the changing fortunes of the various local families who were actively involved in the politics of late 15th and 16th century Scotland. Where will it end? I don’t honestly know, because history never comes to an end and there are many events and individuals who have piqued my interest. The second novel in the series - The Gryphon at Bay - has been completed and is currently lodged with my publisher. It turns the focus from John Sempill of Ellestoun to Hugh, second Lord Montgomerie, charting his rather spectacular fall from grace in 1489.
Now Gryphon is completed, I’m taking a bit of a sabbatical from 15th century Scotland while I write a time-slip novel. At least, I think it’s a "time-slip," though it may technically be "time travel…" Anyway, it’s set variously in ancient Sparta and modern England and Wales. wanted to turn the genre on its head slightly by having the hero come back from the past into the present, so the end result is almost like speculative fiction where the "alien" is from ancient Greece.
It’s a bit of a menace to write, and I don’t even know what the final format will be yet, whether it’ll end up as just one novel, or several interlinked ones. But it’s certainly a different beast from the straight historical novels, and it’s proving quite challenging, too. In a good way...
In the shorter term, work’s currently underway on an audiobook version of Fire and Sword, which should be out later this year, and a companion story to Fire and Sword, entitled The Lay of The Lost Minstrel, has just been released on Amazon as a short e-book.Thank you so much, Louise, this has been a most enjoyable, and, if I may say, a most educational interview. I wish you well with The Gryphon at Bay, and your venture with writing in the timeslip/time travel genre.
Louise Turner can be found on Facebook and on her website.