Today’s guest is not a newcomer to my blog. Char and I collaborated several years ago on a post about Sodomy and Sex in the Middle Ages – as one does—and more recently she visited in connection with the release of her sci-fi novel, Echoes in the Storm. Yes, dear peeps, a sci-fi novel. Char is a lady of diverse interests, and sci-fi is something of a first love, ever since she saw the first Star Wars movies. So into sci-fi was Char that she wrote various short stories for the Star Wars Adventure Journal. One of her characters, Alex Winger, became so popular that the writer of the best-selling Star Wars trilogy, Timothy Zahn, actually gave her a cameo appearance in one of his books, Pretty cool, hey? It is also rather cool that Char has attended numerous Sar Wars conventions as an elite volunteer.
But today, we’re not here to talk about sci-fi. Nope, not at all, even if I am rather fond of the genre as well. Instead, let us talk a bit about Char’s historical fiction novels. I picked up Men of the Cross—her first medieval novel—expecting a classic Crusades story, along the lines of hero marches to the Holy Land, hero fights the Saracens, hero is struck by the insight that men are men, no matter their faith, hero suffers some sort of major loss, hero manages to return home. Well, it didn’t take me long to realise that Char’s hero—heroes—were facing a huge and unusual challenge (Unusual in the sense that we rarely read of it, not in the sense that it actually was unusual for the peeps living in the period). You see, they fall in love—in a time where homosexuality was a major, major no no.
I was very impressed by Men of the Cross. Since then, I have developed something of a crush on Char’s leading men. It helps that she grounds her stories in the actual events of the time. Her meticulous research shines through in her descriptions of places, battles, clothes, food—and people.
Well, enough of the gushing, already. Let us instead get things moving by asking Char just what it was that drew her to the medieval period.
Char: I stumbled into 12th century British history because of a Robin Hood BBC television show. (Anna: Somewhat more modern than my own Erroll Flynn infatuation ? )My schools taught very little medieval history. We touched on big names and major events, like the crusades. Unfortunately, the classes rarely got into the specifics. But history was always my favorite subject – at one point I wanted to teach it. At university, my focus was on U.S. History, so even I’m surprised I haven’t written a novel set during the American Revolution. (Don’t count on that one.)
Anna: What, no American Revolution novel in the pipeline? I am SO disappointed. Fortunatey, we have your medieval novels to enjoy instead. Was there a particular event or person that/who has inspired your writing?
Char: After seeing the Robin Hood television show, I couldn’t get enough of tracking down non-fiction works (translations) written by contemporary chroniclers about the Third Crusade. Some of my heavily-used reference resources are The Chronicle of the Third Crusade: a translation of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, edited by Nicholson; and The Annals of Roger de Hoveden, comprising the history of England and of other countries of Europe from A. D. 732 to A. D. 1201. I also devoured general works and biographies of individuals like King Richard I, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the future King John.
Anna: Tell us a bit about your medieval books!
Char: Well, I’d like to start with the following quote:
“You are working with what isn’t on the record and never could be, so you can never claim to be accurate, but you can aim to be plausible.”–Hilary Mantel, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/oct/04/hilary-mantel-wolf-hall-mantel-pieces
Anna: Ha! Too right! But for historical fiction to be plausible, the writer must invest a lot of time in research—like you did.
Char: I most certainly did. Those contemporary chronicles followed Richard’s path to the Holy Land, and were filled with incidents, accidents, and exaggerations of the journey. (For example of the latter: one of the ‘histories’ claims the crusaders had an army of 100,000. More likely it was closer to 25,000. Richard biographer John Gillingham says an army of 60,000 with a month’s worth of supplies would require 11,000 supply carts that, single file, would stretch 100 miles!)
Doesn’t it seem that most history, and a lot of historical fiction, focuses on the famous? (Anna: Yup. Probably because those very few who could write would not waste ink and vellum on unimportant peeps) There are many novels about Richard the Lionheart as son, as king, and as warrior. I decided to create two fictional main characters who meet for the first time at the start of crusade: the young and inexperienced knight Henry de Grey, and Stephan l’Aigle, a battle-hardened veteran. Writing from the two knights’ point of view gave me the freedom to work their story around the actual history. Book I of the Battle Scars series isn’t just about the bloody battles, or knights in shining armor. It reflects Henry’s inner conflict as he learns firsthand about the horrors of war, and questions the slaughter of innocents and the political intrigue. The novel also deals – indirectly – with the Church’s influence on medieval lives.
I’m a romantic at heart, so what decent tale can’t include a bit of romance? (Anna: Too right!) But you won’t find the knight falling in love with a princess or some fair maiden. Stephan l’Aigle has found enjoyment in the arms of other men, and he is attracted to Henry but unwilling to sacrifice their friendship if Henry wants nothing more. Raised in the 12th century, Henry believes what he’s been taught by the Church. Imagine his inner turmoil when he begins to have feelings for Stephan. (Anna: Char’s depiction of all this turmoil is excellent! Just sayin’…)When you are raised in a faith that teaches it is a mortal sin to have sex for any non pro-creational purpose – let alone sex with another man – there is plenty of room for conflict.
Anna: Are you planning on revisiting this time period? If yes, tell us more!
Char: Of course! As a Robin Hood fan, I introduced a knight named Robin de Louviers in Men of the Cross (Book I of Battle Scars) and began building a backstory for my version of the legend. Robin and two teenaged camp followers – named Allan and Little John – are important secondary characters in the novel. I built on that idea in Books II and III of the series. I could have called it quits, and let the reader imagine the lives of all the characters after the end of Book III. Did Henry & Stephan find a quiet place to live? Did Robin become Hood and create his band of ‘merry men’?
Currently, I am deep into the first draft of a new novel that will answer those questions and more. Tentatively titled Rogue, the book jumps 16+ years and opens near the end of King John’s reign. There will be many familiar faces if you’ve read Battle Scars, but the focus is now on Robin and his son Robert, and told from their points of view. This will be a stand-alone (or a new first in series), and the reader won’t have to read Battle Scars to enjoy the book. (Anna: That sounds very promising—but I’ll be very upset if we don’t get to spend some time with Henry and Stephan. I just have to know that they’re OK)
Like all my other guests, Char shares her research and her fascination for her chosen period in various blog posts. I’d recommend you to pop by and read the following:
Char’s Visit to Nottingham Castle: https://charlenenewcomb.com/2016/10/10/my-visit-to-nottingham-castle/ and the related post https://www.madamegilflurt.com/2016/05/an-american-in-nottingham-writing-robin.html
Pirates, Shipwreck and the Capture of a King – December 1192
Pirates, shipwreck, and the capture of a king . . . December 1192
Medieval Man, Sex, and Mortal Sin in Men of the Cross
Medieval man, sex, and mortal sin in Men of the Cross
Char has decided to share an excerpt from Men of the Cross. King Richard’s army has just captured Messina, Sicily, and it wasn’t pretty.
“Why did the king allow the men to loot the town?” Henry saw a flash of surprise—or was it fear—in Stephan’s eyes.
“Christ, Henry.” Stephan scrubbed a hand through his hair. “I knew you were an innocent—”
“These people are supposed to be our allies!” Henry snapped. “And I am not so naïve.”
“This is war, Henry. We were wronged. Our soldiers murdered.” Stephan’s eyes strayed across the room, landing on Benedict. “We took what we felt should be ours.”
Henry looked from Benedict to Stephan. “It is wrong,” he said vehemently, lowering his head when Stephan faced him. Henry rubbed his fist across the rough wood of the tabletop. He thought of the men he’d killed, the smell of the slaughter. “We are no better than the enemy. We’re all savages.”
A knight across the room cackled, and as if to drive Henry’s point home, the men gathered round him beat the trestles like drums.
Henry flattened a chunk of bread with the blade of his dagger. He waited for the noise to die down. “We have forgotten that God teaches compassion. Does that mean nothing in wartime?” His voice grew soft. “Will God forgive us for pillaging? Innocent women—girls—God’s blood, they were raped.”
Stephan fingered his mug, tracing the intricate design etched in the silver. “The men have rights to the spoils of war, Henry. Don’t the priests claim God forgives because we fight for Him? For Jerusalem?”
“This is Messina. I did not take the Cross to fight the people of Sicily.” Henry scoffed. He’d suddenly lost his appetite and shoved his trencher away. “And when did you become a religious man?”
Stephan waved his hands emphatically. “Not me. I would never make that claim.”
One of the serving girls placed a fresh platter of meats and fruits and another jug of ale on the table. She smiled at them with crooked, yellowed teeth and brushed Stephan’s arm, disappointed when he ignored her.
Henry stared across the room. “I should have stayed in England.”
“What?” Stephan groaned. “Behind the safe walls of your manor house?”
“My father was right. I know nothing, understand nothing, of war.”
“You know that Saladin slaughtered thousands of Christians. Is that not enough?”
“Killing people in Messina will not bring them back.” He rubbed the ache in his temples. If Saladin’s atrocities were all he had to know and supporting this pilgrimage was the right thing to do, why was his mind in such turmoil? He finally met Stephan’s eyes. “It makes my stomach churn. Others seemed to revel in it.”
Henry had barely said the words when Thomas of Winchester spouted off in agonizing detail how it took two slashes to sever the head from the body of one of their enemies. “His eyes bulged like the young maid who saw my engorged cock and nearly fainted with fright.” Thomas imitated his victim’s death throes then cupped his groin with a grunt. He grabbed one of the serving girls and pulled her into his lap.
Thomas’ companions laughed. Henry snarled, finding nothing funny in the man’s actions or words.
Stephan rubbed a hand across his back. Henry flinched. He turned fiery eyes on Stephan. “And
“War is ugly, Henry.” Stephan’s gaze drifted across the room where Thomas sat. “Some brag. Or pray. Some get drunk to forget. Others find solace—”
“In another’s arms?” Henry asked.
Stephan turned to him and nodded, no hint of regret. “Yes.”
About the author
Charlene Newcomb lives, works, and writes in Kansas. She is an academic librarian by trade (retired), a U.S. Navy veteran, and has three grown children. She has published 3 award-winning historical fiction novels, 1 contemporary novel, numerous short stories, and recently published Echoes of the Storm, her first science fiction novel. Char is a contributor to and blog editor for English Historical Fiction Authors. When not at the library, she is still surrounded by books trying to fill her head with all things medieval and galaxies far, far away. She loves to travel and enjoys quiet places in the mountains or on rocky coasts. But even in Kansas she can let her imagination soar.
Well, that is all for today peeps. Catch up with last week’s guest E.M. Powell and I hope you’ll all be back next week when we’ll celebrate the first day of December together with Sharon Bennett Connolly!