Interview with Author Helena P. Schrader

HPS-sculpture (2)

Balian, the landless son of a local baron, goes to Jerusalem to seek his fortune. Instead, he finds himself trapped into serving the young prince suffering from leprosy, an apparent sentence to obscurity and death. But the unexpected death of King Amalric makes the leper boy King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, and Balian’s prospects begin to improve…
–Knight of Jerusalem by Helena P. Schrader.

It is a privilege to have Helena P. Schrader visit my blog today.

CS: Wow, Helena! To the general audience, Knight of Jerusalem sounds like incredible fiction: the third son with no prospects for land, title, or wealth, a leper king, and events leading up to the Third Crusade. The plot possibilities are endless. But what makes this story so intriguing is that it is a biographical novel. Balian d’Ibelin was a real person whose history might sound more fiction than fact. So let’s get down to your research and writing… 

Knight of Jerusalem centers on an era that is close to my heart and my own writing. Tell us about your book series. What inspired you to write Balian d’Ibelin’s fascinating story?

HS: The Ridley Scott film “The Kingdom of Heaven” starring Orlando Bloom. Knight of JerusalemAlthough it was a beautiful piece of cinematography, as a historian I was immediately suspicious that most of it was pure “Hollywood.” I did a quick check on “Balian d’Ibelin” — only to discover (to my amazement!) that some of the most unlikely parts of the film were historical fact. Furthermore, I learned that the historical Balian had a far more interesting story than the Hollywood Balian. The more I read about the real Balian, the more fascinated I became. I was soon hooked. I started out to write a single book and within nine months knew the story was too complex to handle in a single volume, hence the biography in three parts.

CN: It has been years since I have seen “The Kingdom of Heaven.”  I wasn’t a student of crusades history at the time, so the ‘fiction’ vs. historical fact likely blew right over my head. Was there one thing in particular that you couldn’t believe was true until you did the research? 

HS: Yes, the mass knighting. In the film, when Balian is organizing the defense of Jerusalem and Heraclius tells him they have no knights, Balian tells all the fighting men to kneel and proceeds to knight them all. That seemed pretty far-fetched to me, but it does have a basis in truth. In reality it was only 80 youths “of good birth” – the younger brothers and sons of the men killed or captured at Hattin who had taken refuge in Jerusalem for the most part – that Balian knighted, but he did have a mass knighting because he was the only knight in Jerusalem when he arrived. In my novel, I’m going to have him include men-at-arms he knows and trusts as well (as battlefield knightings of men of lesser birth were not at all unheard of.)

The negotiations with Saladin are almost verbatim what the Arab sources report, but that rang true even when I saw the film for the first time, so I suspected that was accurate.

The stupidist part of the film is how Balian alone survives a shipwreck with a horse who is equally uninjured and then he fights an important emir and wins in a “fair fight.” In reality, of course, Balian was born and raised in Outremer and never had to travel by sea to get there. Nor was he a blacksmith or illegitimate. But his brother had an affair with Sibylla before she married Lusignan and Balian himself married a former queen of Jeruslaem, so even the love affair with Sibylla had an indirect and tenuous relationship to reality.

CN: You weren’t always a novelist. How has your background and education played into writing fiction? 

HS: Well, I was almost always a novelist, I wrote my first novel in 2nd grade, but you are right to speculate that my background and education played a critical role in turning me into a novelist at a very early age. My father was a professor who went to Japan on an exchange program when I was just two years old. Two years later, we returned via Hong Kong, Bangkok, Karachi, New Delphi, Athens, Rome, and then by car up to Denmark before flying to London and from there home. Now, to keep a four-year-old amused on such a long trip my father deployed the simple device of simplifying the explanations of everything we visited into terms of interest to a four year old. Thus, in the Colosseum in Rome he explained succinctly: “This is where they fed the Christians to the lions.” Now that interests a four year old! I started looking about the ruins trying to figure out where they’d kept the lions and where they’d kept the Christians and trying to imagine how I would have escaped. I’ve been imagining what life was like in a different times and circumstances ever since. Living in England in my teens was hugely inspiring, feeding my imagination with stories – and then there were the trips to “Cathar Country” in the South of France, and Cyprus, and. . .you get the picture.

CN: What a life! Though I haven’t traveled that extensively, I am a firm believer in the benefits of visiting other places and experiencing other cultures. What about the locations that feature in your novel – have you visited them? 

HS: Usually the visit precedes the novel. I am somewhere, read a plaque or a guide book describing events that happened there, and my imagination starts to run wild. But the plots of novels often lead me to places I have not yet been. I then do everything in my power to get there, because I find a visit to a location makes a huge difference to my understanding of it. For example, I accepted the usual drivel about Sparta being a poor and barren place (see descriptions of it in “Gates of Fire” or “Isle of Stone”) until I came around the bend of the road from road from modern Tripoli to modern Sparti and saw the valley of the Eurotas (the heartland of ancient Sparta) spread out before me. It was one of the most stunningly beautiful – and fertile – places I had ever seen. The contrast between reality and legend was so great it started me down a road of investigation that soon turned up the fact that ancient commentators on Sparta described it as much richer and more fertile than Attica. After I’d revised my understanding of the physical Sparta, I started questioning all the cliches about Spartans being uneducated thugs, thoughtless automatons, etc. etc. I soon discovered that Sparta was a far more liberal and intellectual place than popular literature and TV make it – indeed, arguably more liberal and literate than Athens. (For those interested in the topic, they can visit my website Sparta Reconsidered or my blog:

But I’ve drifted off topic. Yes, I usually try to get to the places I write about but it’s not always possible. For example, the castle and medieval down of Ibelin has been completely obliterated over the centuries. Even the palace and tombs of the Kings of Jerusalem are gone. I couldn’t risk going to Nablus in the Palestinian territories and Kerak lies in Jordan, which I have also been unable to visit as yet. So, I do what I can, but it isn’t always as much as I’d like. For this book, I did, at least, get to the Old City in Jerusalem, to Hattin, Jaffa, Ascalon, Ramla, and Lydda.

CN: With all the traveling you’ve done, do you have a favorite place to visit?

HS: Yes, I’ve travelled a great deal and I’ve lived in Japan, Brazil, England, Germany, Nigeria, and now Ethiopia. The place I’ve chosen for my retirement, however, is an island off the coast of the Peloponnese (once part of Lacedaemon, i.e. the hinterland of Sparta). My husband and I are building a house there with a view across the Maleas Straits to the snow-capped mountains behind Sparta.

CN: That sounds absolutely gorgeous. A perfect writer’s retreat. Speaking of writing, what has been the most challenging part of novel writing for you?

HS: The most difficult challenge for me as a historian (I have a PhD in history) is giving precedence to literary cohesion over historical accuracy. I have a tendency to want to be 100% accurate in every aspect of a novel, but the best works of historical literature are not always 100% correct. Shakespeare’s “histories” are notoriously inaccurate! A great piece of literature captures the spirit and essence of a period, but it may condense events to make them more dramatic or combine characters to keep the book from being overwhelmed with personalities. I’m not saying a novelist can take any amount of license, but sometimes license is justified, and knowing when it is right and good to do so is for me often difficult sometimes.

CN: Do you do a detailed plot and outline?

HS: Because this is a biographical novel, my plot/outline is the historical record. I work from both a chronology and an outline. The chronology contains all the relevant historical facts of the history of the Crusader States (not just Balian’s own life, but also the political, religious, economic events that shaped his lifetime) from the estimated date of Balian’s birth to a couple decades after his presumed death. Based on the historical facts, including the known biographical facts about Balian, his brother, wife, sons, niece etc. I developed an outline identifying which facts I wanted to present in what context and then added the fictional bits around this skeleton.

CN: In the introduction to Knight of Jerusalem, you write, “A biographical novel…is a medium that can turn a name in the history books into a person so vivid, complex, and yet comprehensible that history itself becomes more understandable.” It’s been my experience that many historians look down on genre fiction. How can we convince them of the value of books like yours?

HS: Most historians are put-off, not to say nauseated, by the number of books out there that call themselves “historical” and then have time travellers, dragons, vampires and I-don’t-know-what- all in them. Nearly as bad are “historical” novels with characters who behave, think, and have the attitudes of modern people, or books that change basic, well-known, important historical facts for no purpose. Honestly, there is so much trash out there masquerading as “historical” fiction that it can be very, very depressing. At the same time, some of the greatest pieces of literature are historical fiction. What else, after all, was the Iliad? Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur? or Tolstoy’s War and Peace? In fact, in my experience, historians readily admit that good historical fiction can make a very valuable contribution to our understanding of history, and many teachers of history relish a good, accurate historical novel as a means of awaking interest and evoking history for often reluctant students. In short, historians are some of my best fans precisely because they appreciate the accuracy and authenticity of my works.

CN: When writing a novel based on an existing historical figure, we often need to extrapolate beyond what our research uncovers in the official written record. Did you ever have the need to bend the truth and get more creative to make the story work?

HS: Absolutely, but “extrapolate” is the operative word here. It isn’t about just making things up, its about looking at the historical record and trying to develop a logical explanation of why a historical figure might have acted one way rather than another. The more famous that person is, the more defensible and logical that extrapolation better be! It’s about understanding human nature and being able to put yourself in someone else’s skin and see the world through his/her eyes. It also means that there are multiple, alternative interpretations, all of which are equally legitimate — just like different actors can interpret the same character in a play very differently without altering a single line.

CN: How long did it take you to write Knight of Jerusalem?

HS: It took about nine months for the first, rough draft. Then I did a re-write, sent it to test readers and re-wrote again based on their comments, before it went to the editor. Altogether from the first scene to publication about 15 months.

CN: Did you plot out the sequels as you were writing the first book, or are those processes completely separate? 

HS: As this is a biographical novel, the skeleton of the book existed before I even started to write. But when I started, I thought it would be just one book only to soon realize that to do justice to Balian and the wider topic, I needed to include more characters and historical events and that it wouldn’t work as one book. Ideally, I should have finished the entire work before releasing Book I because ultimately things will come up in the later books that impact Book I, but for marketing/sales reasons it is better to release the books sequentially. I don’t know if that answers your question, really. Maybe it would be easier to say the rough outline is pre-determined by history and Balian’s biography; the detailed outline is worked out in ever finer detail as I get closer to writing that particular section, and ultimately during writing itself.

CN: Are there certain types of scenes you find harder to write than others?

HS: If I’m having trouble writing a scene then something’s not right about it. In which case, I have to step back and consider a different approach – maybe a different point of view, or skipping over the scene altogether in favor of something else and only referring to the events of the skipped scene in retrospect. There are lots of devices for telling key events/components of a story. It can be fun playing around with a variety of approaches to see what works best.

That said, if there is a historical character I simply do not understand, then I cannot write a scene from their perspective. Keep in mind, fictional characters are your own creation and if you didn’t understand them, they wouldn’t be there. But biographical fiction inevitably requires certain other characters to appear and sometimes I don’t have any particular insight into what made them do the things recorded in history. This is what has happened to me with Sibylla of Jerusalem. I simply do not understand what made her tick. I can’t get into her head and so I cannot do any scene from her perspective. One of my test readers considered this a serious flaw, saying that given her importance in history I had to explain her actions. Well, that’s a good point, but I can’t do that. It’s a flaw.

CN: I like your tips about various approaches to scenes. I know I’ve experimented, scratched out numerous scenarios, to find what will move the plot forward. Speaking of scenes, do you have a favorite one from Knight of Jerusalem? Which one & why? 

HS: Do you mean the scene I think was most effective? or the one that captivated me most? The sack of Ibelin while Balian’s sister-in-law and niece were trapped in the castle was something I wrote about several times because I became totally absorbed in what it must have been like for a woman with a young child in such a predicament — but then I ended up cutting the scene altogether because it didn’t work in the overall flow. I think the most effective scenes in the book are those with Baldwin IV, particularly when he realizes the leprosy is spreading again.

CN: Did you uncover any surprising historical persons, places, events or things in your research?

HS: So many! Balian himself, Maria Comnena, Reynald de Chatillon, of course, and the Leper King. I find the entire cast of characters fascinating at some level, and the historical events equally so.

CN: What writers have inspired you? Any favorite books? Are there any you’ve read multiple times, or that you would give as a gift?

HS: Joseph Conrad was an early favourte, Katherine by Anya Seaton and The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman are books I own and have read more than once, but also Under an English Heaven by Robert Radcliffe, and Champion by Christian Balling.

CN: When can we look forward to book 2 in your series? Does it have a title yet?

HS: I’d like to release the second book in the series, Defender of Jerusalem in September of 2015, one year after the release of Knight of Jerusalem. The goal is to release the third and final book, tentatively titled Envoy of Jerusalem in September 2016.

CN: What do you enjoy doing when you aren’t working or writing? Favorite past time?

HS: Riding. I have an Arab-Ethiopian stallion here, who is (I confess) too hot for me, but he’s got so much character I can’t give him up for one of the duller horses.

CN:  Helena, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I look forward to your posts on Defending the Crusader Kingdom, and hope that others will add Knight of Jerusalem to their to-read lists! 


Read more about Helena on her blog, In addition to the Sparta site she mentions above, follow her posts on the crusader kingdoms of Cyprus and Jerusalem at Defending the Crusader Kingdom,

Helena has published numerous works of fiction about the Middle Ages and Sparta and works of non-fiction.

You will also find Helena on social media on Goodreads, Facebook, and YouTube.

Posted in historical fiction, interviews | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Writing update… For King and Country, book 2 of Battle Scars

Last week, three friends said they hadn’t seen my news about the post I did on English Historical Fiction Authors, or that I was interviewing a best-selling novelist. “I don’t have a Facebook account.” “I don’t see your posts in my Facebook Newsfeed.” Social media can be hit or miss, and I often think that there’s a lot more “miss” than “hit.” (If you really want to see me on Facebook (FB), turn on “notifications.”)  One good thing about FB is that I can post short updates that don’t always seem appropriate as blog posts, but if no one sees them, what good is that?!

This may be another “miss,” but I thought I’d do a round-up of items I’ve posted to FB in the last couple of week, particularly those providing a look at my progress on the sequel to Men of the Cross. I seem to have posted a number of snippets from the book there lately, so it feels right to share them here! Let’s go…

Nottingham Castle

Nottingham Castle


Sept. 21
102,833 words and counting…

Sept. 22
#1stdraft #ForKingandCountry

Robin called out, prayed for an answer. But none came. Every rustle in the bushes made him turn, hopeful to see his son.

“Where are you?” He called to the shadows darkening the woods.

Nothing. Not a sound. Even the trees had gone still.

The moon and stars laid claim to the sky, the light not a blessing but rather a curse. It illuminated empty spaces. The wind picked up and ushered in dark, rumbling clouds. With the villagers long gone to bed, Robin searched every place he’d already been. When the rain came, his voice rang out louder and stronger. Soaked from the downpour, he finally led Aggie to the stables. He searched there one last time, and then closed the door against the storm. Outside, he stared at the candle flickering in Marian’s window. He fell back against the wall, letting the rain mingle with his tears.

Sept. 27
It’s been a long, busy week. I haven’t been able to work on the novel as much as I would’ve liked. 800 new words this morning. Set the stage for another fight scene. Let the bodies begin to fall… 104,222 words and counting…

Sept. 28
Another 1100 words added to that fight scene. Have the basics down, though I have a character running loose who needs to bite the dust. Will flesh that out this week, but in the meantime, how about a harvest celebration: #ForKingandCountry #1stDraft

Drunk on passion, Henry staggered back toward the gathering. He grabbed William Carpenter’s ale and drank it down, did a spin with the man’s wife. Linota had to hold him up. She whacked his arse playfully. “You’ve enough ale for five men, Master Henry.”

“I know!” he said gleefully. “I should have another.” He reached for the goblet in her hands.

“I think not.” Linota swatted his hand away. She guided him past a table spread with roasted meat and pies. Henry grabbed two legs of chicken—Stephan might be hungry.

He heard his father call out. “Good to see you in such fine spirits.”

Henry tucked the meat into the crook of his elbow and spun Linota around one last time. At the door of the manor, he bowed, nearly tipping forward. “Thank you, dear lady.”

“Goodnight, Master Henry. Sleep well, ‘cause I fear you shall not feel so good come morning.”

Henry closed the door and leaned into it. His heart pounded wildly. He took one deep breath and then galloped up the stairs to find his lover.

Sept. 30
#firstdraft #ForKingandCountry 106,810 words and counting…

Tuck wrapped his arms round himself to ward off the chill. Sun and shadow played across the scowl on his companion’s grizzled face. Cold, tired, and an empty pouch. Not a good combination when a boss wanted to keep a man loyal. But fear…fear that any move might bring the wrong kind of attention? That would keep most men in line.

But Tuck was not most men…

Oct. 6
#firstdraft #ForKingandCountry 112,734 words and counting…

Robin held a thousand memories in his eyes. “You see their faces every time you draw your sword.”

Oct. 7
Feeling accomplished today:
1) #amediting and at 117,000 words – another 25K to get through on this round.
2) finished formatting a special blog post – watch for it on Thurs. or Friday.

robin & marian

at Nottingham Castle. Richard I marries Robin & Marian

Oct. 8
I usually sneak in an hour or two of writing in the mornings, but I slept in until 6:09 today. Rather than jump into editing mode while I waited to head to the doctor, I mulled over a scene I’d written months ago. I’d re-read it yesterday – it’s part of the chapter I’m editing now. I really like the scene, but realized I didn’t have a transition to explain how Little John ends up in a carriage with Queen Eleanor. Two cups of coffee. Visit to doc complete. Numb neck. Transition? Got it! #amediting

Oct. 11
Another chapter laid to rest. 121,002 words and counting… somehow the mss. has grown to 144K and I still have the last 23K to edit. Time for some hot tea, and then I will attack the next scene.

Oct. 12
King Richard is free! YAY! But, I still have to get him back to England. As I mentioned in a comment to Matthew below, this morning my edits include checking logistics, dates, and the whereabouts of certain historical figures to ensure I don’t take *too* much creative license.

That’s all for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed these peeks at For King and Country. Until next time… Have a good week!

>>Photos from the castle taken by me in 2010. CC BY-SA 4.0>>


Get swept away to the 12th century



My novel, Men of the Cross, is available in print and for Kindle on Amazon sites worldwide, for Nook via Barnes & Noble, and via Smashwords in multiple formats.


Posted in Battle Scars, historical fiction, social media, teasers, works in process | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Interview with Author Steven A. McKay

Stephen A. McKayI am delighted to have Steven A. McKay, author of bestselling novels Wolf’s Head and The Wolf and the Raven, visit with me today. Steven introduced me – and thousands of other readers I imagine – to Robin Hood in 14th century Yorkshire. Wait! What happened to the Sheriff of Nottingham? I’ll let Steven talk about his research and writing, and maybe I will get some insight about self-publishing from this indie author who is rocking the Amazon charts.

CN: Welcome, Steven! Let’s jump right in. Why Robin Hood in the 14th century? 

SM: When I started researching the Robin Hood legend I found out there was quite a lot of evidence that the “real” man had lived around that period. The ballads mention things that fit with the early 14th century and, to be honest, I was very pleased to find that out as it allowed me to put a new spin on the tale. Ultimately, no one will ever know when he lived, or even if there was a real person that all the stories were based on, but setting my series in the 14th century meant I could bring some new historical characters into the mix and, hopefully, make things fresh for the readers.

The most surprising thing for me, and pretty much everyone else that’s read the books, is the fact that there’s such a strong case for Robin Hood being from Yorkshire rather than Nottingham. All the early ballads place him in Barnsdale forest rather than Sherwood. Along with the time period, that really sets my version of the legend apart from other authors or film-makers.

CN: I’ll be honest – medieval English history isn’t high on the radar in U.S. primary and secondary schools except for the Norman Conquest and Magna Carta, with maybe a smattering of War of the Roses. I knew very little about 14th century England until I read Wolf’s Head. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and the historical background you included. I’ve been spoiled by television and movies using Nottingham, but delighted to learn about a time and place I wasn’t so familiar with. I imagine many of your readers feel the same – and those in Yorkshire are probably thrilled!

What’s the best part of the writing process for you? What has been the most challenging?

SM: I love sitting down to write with an idea of what’s going to happen, only to find the characters pull me in a completely different direction. It really feels like the books write themselves sometimes with only limited input from me! The most challenging thing is finding time to sit down and actually write. I have no problem planning scenes and coming up with a clear idea of how to get from point A to point B, but it’s really hard to get a spare couple of hours sometimes.

CN: How long did it take you to write your first book? What is the most important thing you learned in that process?

SM: I think it was about three years, but that included a lot of time researching the period andWolfs Head figuring out how Wolf’s Head should pan out. My first draft was very different to how it eventually turned out, with some fantasy/supernatural elements and less of the historical detail. My editor really helped me sharpen things up in that regard. The most important thing I learned is that it’s possible – for me at least – to write whenever I feel like it, even if it means writing nothing for weeks or months at a time. My family suffered a very traumatic experience while I was working on that first book and at times I didn’t feel like writing for long periods. But I managed to come back after each break and continue on where I’d left off. So, now, when I find myself struggling for time I know I don’t need to panic – it’ll come good in the end!

CN: With two successful novels published, you’ve now written a novella, Knight of the Cross. What prompted you to go that route?  What has that journey been like?

SM: I’ve always wanted to write something with elements of the supernatural but my “straight” historical fiction novels didn’t allow it. I also wanted to write something about Sir Richard-at-Lee’s time in Rhodes with the Hospitallers so…it seemed a good idea to combine the two. Obviously, my main focus is my Forest Lord series which revolves around Robin Hood, and I didn’t want to take too much time out from working on the next book in that series so I decided to make Knight of the Cross a novella as it wouldn’t take too long. I also thought it might be a good marketing strategy: pricing it at 77p is almost as good as giving it away for nothing, right? [CN: that's $.99 in the US, folks!] 77p barely even buys you a bar of chocolate these days, which’ll last you two mintues! So I’m hoping people that might not have read my full-length, full-price novels will take a chance on the novella and enjoy it enough to try my other work.

CN: That sounds like a great strategy, and the shorter length allows you a bit of a break. Like me, you hold down a full time job. What is your typical day like? When do you find time to write?

SM: I really don’t have a “typical” day. Generally, my wife takes the kids out to her parents’ a couple of times a week and I spend that time when I have the house to myself writing as much as possible. Since the time is so limited it’s really important that I know pretty much what I’m going to be writing when I do sit down with the music on and the laptop out. Luckily, I do a lot of driving in my job and I use that time to plan things. Today, for example, I had about a four hour round trip from my house to a site in Dumfries to do some work on a gas meter. Those four hours were spent listening to Jethro Tull and working out what I’m going to write on Thursday evening!

CN: Are you a plotter or a pantster?

SM: Both, if I understand you right….I have a basic outline for each scene in my head, and a basic outline for how the book should get from beginning to end. But when I sit and start to write I really let the characters go where they want. Usually they go where I expected them to, but every now and again something I didn’t expect happens. In The Wolf and the Raven for example, I planned on someone getting shot by Sir Guy of Gisbourne, but as I wrote it, someone else took the hit. I was happy to go with it and it opened up a whole new series of events that I’d never expected.

I always shake my head when I read a bad review of my books on Amazon where the reviewer says they’re “predictable”, since I don’t even know how things are going to go myself until it happens! There’s a lot of clairvoyant readers out there…

Wolf and the RavenCN: Are there certain types of scenes you find harder to write than others?

SM: Not really. I’m onto my third novel now though, obviously with the novella out there too, so it’s important to try and not keep repeating myself when it comes to things like fight scenes. That’s when reviews really come in handy. I read them all and sometimes you get a really valuable piece of feedback that tells you you need to take care not to overuse something. For my novella I looked at scary scenes in books by guys like Stephen King – I don’t read horror so I wanted to make sure I was doing it right! In the end, though, I just wrote the supernatural parts the same as I write everything else. I hope it worked out okay.

CN: The novella looks like it is in the top 100 on the Fiction > War charts at the moment, so I’d say it’s working out quite well!  

Do you have a favorite scene from any of your books? Which one & why?

SM: Yes, the scene in Wolf’s Head where one of the characters is, apparently, mortally wounded but survives. Some readers misinterpreted that section as being a handy miracle, but it’s not about that at all. It’s about a father’s love for his daughter and the power of the human spirit. Although it’s surrounded by the suggestion of divine intervention and religion, it actually – to me at least – has nothing at all to do with that.

That one scene tells you a lot about my philosophy if you read between the lines.

CN: [Note to self: re-read that scene!]

What writers have inspired you? Any favorite books?

SM: Lots! My favourite ever book is probably Lord of the Rings but I was mostly inspired by Bernard Cornwell when I started writing my own novels. In recent years Glyn Iliffe, Douglas Jackson, Anthony Riches and Ben Kane have all really helped me understand how to craft an exciting historical fiction novel, with a good blend of history and action.

CN: Cornwell and Tolkien are two of my favorites as well. Now I’ll need to add the others to be ‘to-read’ list.

You are a rock musician. I know you play guitar. When did you start? Self-taught? Do you play any other instruments? Tell us about your band.

SM: I must have been about 10 when I started learning guitar. I never really made much progress until I realised I could play AC/DC songs on one string and then I really got into it! I started to get pretty good when I was a teenager so my mum sent me to a teacher in Glasgow for lessons and I ended up showing the teacher how to play heavy metal songs I’d learned by listening to records. I also play bass, and can dabble with flute, mandolin and drums. I sing too. My band, Nocturnal Fire, isn’t really a going concern any more unfortunately. We still meet up for a jam when we can, but we’re all busy and it’s impossible to find time to gig or whatever.

Once I write a book that sells a million I plan on building a recording studio and spending all my spare time writing rip-offs of Iron Maiden songs!

CN: I love the name of your band. We’re all so pressed for time these days, and pulled in so many directions. But that recording studio sounds like a great way to celebrate your success. I’ll be rooting for you.

What’s next in your writing? A third or fourth volume in your Forest Lord series?
Knight Of The Cross smaller final version

SM: Both! I’m working on the next Forest Lord book right now, Rise of the Wolf. A fourth,
and final, book will follow that. Then…who knows? Early reviews of my Knight of the Cross novella suggest I could look at a full-length novel about Sir Richard. I’m also thinking of another novella or two, with Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet or even Sir Guy of Gisbourne taking centre-stage.

CN: I say ‘yes!’ Go for them all. Your fans want more. (And I do plan to read them all…just need more time for leisure reading rather than research, like you.)

What is the best marketing tip you can give another indie writer?

SM: Getting good reviews is the best way to start. To that end, I really recommend finding at least half a dozen beta-readers who you think will enjoy your work. Let them have a pre-release copy of your ebook and, if they like it, ask them to leave a review on Amazon, etc., once the book is published. Remember, you’re looking for genuine reviews so asking ten family members to write gushing praise with a 5 star rating is pointless – buyers will see through it!

CN: Thanks for that tip, Steven. On a final note, I must mention that you are a two-time IndieB.R.A.G. medallion honoree! And thank you for taking the time to talk with me about your writing. Congratulations on your success. You are an inspiration to indie authors everywhere. 


Steven A. McKay was born in 1977, near Glasgow in Scotland. He lives in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children.

His second book, The Wolf and the Raven was released on April 7th, at the London Book Fair where he was part of the Amazon stand. His début novel, Wolf’s Head, was also released the same day as an audiobook.

Wolf’s Head is a Kindle top 20 best-seller and The Wolf and the Raven was the “War” chart number 1.

He plays lead guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.

Amazon Author Page:

Blog/official website:

Social media:


Posted in historical fiction, interviews | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Is the world ready for another Robin Hood tale?

Al & me with Robin Hood Nottingham 2010

Al & me with Robin Hood
Nottingham 2010

Authors Steven A. McKay and Angus Donald have huge successes with their recent novels exploring new tales of Robin Hood. McKay’s Forest Lord series features Robin in 14th century England. He’s a Yorkshire lad – not of noble birth – during the tumultuous reign of Edward II. Donald writes a 12th century Mafia-style Robin in his Outlaw Chronicles. Donald’s Robin can be cruel and cutthroat – he’s already well established as the lord of the Forest when we first meet him in book 1, Outlaw, and the story is told brilliantly through the eyes of Allan a-Dale. McKay introduces us to his Robin as a teen on the edge of manhood, and we see the path he takes to ruling over the gang in Barnsdale Forest in his book 1, Wolf’s Head.  Both authors’ novels are filled with action, adventure, derring-do, and plenty of blood. Swords and arrows in medieval times. Knights, outlaws, poor and rich, evil and good. What’s not to love?

NEWS! NEWS! NEWS! I’ll be interviewing Steven on my blog in a few days! Watch for that post.

Is the world ready for another Robin Hood tale? (Ahem. Mine, that is.) Blame my critique group (CP) for letting me even consider that my highly-skilled-archer-knight-Robin-like-character might be “the” Robin Hood. “Why not use Robin?” they asked. With their encouragement, a character named William became Robin du Louviers, aka Robin Carpenter, whose future will turn to helping those in need. Two young teenaged unnamed thieves, who so delighted my CPs in a walk-on role in one early chapter of Men of the Cross suddenly became Allan and Little John. Those walk-on roles and subsequent shenanigans have endeared many a reader, which has thoroughly thrilled me.

Now I will admit “the legend” does not yet exist in my Battle Scars series, which like Donald’s earliest books, takes place in the 1190s during the time of Richard the Lionheart. There are no “merry men.” No outlaws or forest lords. Robin is not even the central character of book 1. But the characters grow and change in Men of the Cross. The war affects them all; they are comrades-in-arms. Will the reader see the men they will become in their actions?


The Trip, Nottingham 2010

In book 2, For King and Country, the men return to England. Robin, Allan, and Little John enjoy individual story arcs tying into that of main character Henry de Grey. The king’s brother, John, is attempting to usurp Richard’s throne. Taxes collected for the king’s ransom hurt the poor. Are John and his co-conspirators diverting ransom money to their own pockets? England is on the brink of civil war. People are suffering. The Trip has run out of ale. (Okay, not really.)

Readers will meet other familiar characters from the legends – Much Miller, Will Scarlett, Tuck, and Marian. None have gone to the greenwood, but their reasons for turning to that life will become apparent in For King and Country if I do my job.

Can we ever have enough of Robin Hood? I don’t think so. Will you follow along as I tell this tale? I hope so!


Get swept away to the 12th century

My novel, Men of the Cross, is available in print and for Kindle on Amazon sites worldwide, for Nook via Barnes & Noble, and via Smashwords in multiple formats.

Posted in Battle Scars, book reviews, historical fiction | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Third Crusade history – 4 October 1190 – the capture of Messina

Richard_I_and_Joan_greeting_Philip_Augustus-2On their way to the Holy Land after the fall of Jerusalem to Salah al-Dīn, Christian armies gathered in Messina, Sicily. Today, I am guest posting  on English Historical Fiction Authors about the political background, intrigue, and events that led to Messina’s capture by Richard the Lionheart. Many thanks to Debra Brown for inviting me to contribute.

Image attribution: Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Posted in marketing, research | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Things I collect…

What obsess—er, collections do you have? I am quite purposeful in my collecting, though I don’t look to collect things with an aim to leave fabulous treasures or wealth to my heirs. (Sorry, kids.) I collect items that make me smile, bring back a memory. Things that can be used or played with.

I have keychains…

2014 keychains SW 2014 keychains ukand coffee mugs…

2014 mugs uk 2014 mugsand Fetts and R2-D2s…

2014 boba collection 2014 R2D2sDid I make you smile? :)

Posted in life | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Reading non-fiction for my fiction…

books for my researchIt was great to read Patricia Bracewell’s articles on early Roman roads in England on English Historical Fiction Authors (EHFA) – very timely given that in the upcoming sequel to Men of the Cross, Henry de Grey’s fictional manor lies about one mile west of Ermine Street in Lincolnshire. It was also heartening to see Patricia’s note on her own blog: “Whenever I put together a history-related blog post, it’s not something I’m writing off the top of my head even if the material springs from research I’ve been doing for the past nine years.”

I have spent extra time the last 2-3 weeks reviewing primary resources for my upcoming post about Messina on EHFA. And you may recall my search for information on the siege at Wallingford here.  Writing a Third Crusade novel meant knowing about medieval warfare as well as the events, major players, and politics of the time. The second book in my Battle Scars series takes place in the year following the Crusade, 1193-1194, and gives me the opportunity to learn more about social life and living conditions specifically in 12th century England. My background research includes topics such as:

  • medieval houses – sizes, materials used to build, layout
  • life on the manor
  • crops, trees, animals
  • Forests (with a capital “F”) and woodlands and fens

Here are a few of the books I’m using:

Land and people in medieval Lincolnshire
Power and profit: the merchant in medieval Europe
The English Mediaeval House
A social history of England, 900-1200

(See the complete citations on my Reference Resources page.)

I wish I could read something once and commit it to memory, but no – I find myself going back to review time and again. Are you one of those lucky writers with a brain that traps every word for future use?


ignore the enemy

My novel, Men of the Cross, is available in print and for Kindle
on Amazon & Amazon (UK) and other Amazon sites worldwide,
for Nook via Barnes & Noble, and via Smashwords in multiple formats.

Posted in historical fiction, research, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , | 2 Comments