The border ballads

Hello, hope you’re all having a good week? It’s Jen here, and today, I’m going to share some of my favourite border ballads with you. No, don’t worry, it doesn’t involve me singing – I wouldn’t do that to you… 

I’m talking about the ballads, often poetry set to music, which were performed as entertainment, and were particularly famous during the medieval period. They were a key part of the story-telling world during these times, with limited scope for stories being put to paper – they allowed news of infamous criminals, or exciting escapades, to be passed from village to village, most likely embellished plenty along the way!

I came across a few of the most popular during my research for The Raided Heart, and thought I would share these with you today.

CarlisleCastle
The impressive defences of Carlisle Castle – these would have taken some breaching for a rescue!

Kinmont Willie, or William Armstrong of Kinmont, is one of the most famous of the reivers, and he had a truly eventful life. Following a Day of Truce (where legal disputes would be settled, and reivers were supposedly safe to travel over the border), Kinmont was captured by the English, who he had been tormenting with raids for years, and taken to Carlisle Castle by the Warden. As the arrest had been done illegally, the Keeper of Liddesdale, who controlled the land where it had happened, protested, but to no avail. More drastic action was needed – the Keeper led a group of men into England, and broke Kinmont out of Carlisle Castle, an impressive feat. This then led to anger between Elizabeth I and James VI, as the countries were meant to be at peace at the time, with no legitimate reason for a raid on one of her border castles.

One of my favourite stories is of Midside Maggie, or Maggie Hardy, who lived in Lauderdale during the 17th century. Although inherently a tale of hardship, it also has a positive feel to it.

As was so often the case in the borderlands, the Hardy’s farm was suffering after a bad winter, and the family was simply unable to pay the rent they owed their landlord, an unpleasant type, unconcerned with the wellbeing of his tenants. When Maggie went to plead for the rent to be waived for that period, he didn’t say no, but set her a challenge: she either had to bring him the rent in June, when it was due, or a snowball in the same month, to prove her point regarding the harsh winter. Now, Maggie had her wits about her, and when she returned home, she gathered as much snow as she could, and packed it tightly into a sheltered crack in the hillside, where the sun never reached. Miraculously, when June rolled around, some of the snow still remained, enough to form a snowball to take to the landowner. In all fairness, he at least stuck to his side of the deal, and over time, the farm recovered. His kindness in this instance was rewarded when he subsequently found himself imprisoned in the Tower of London (a place I know well as a writer!), and Maggie travelled to London, with their saved-up rent from the time he had been away, which she baked into a bannock, and presented it to their landlord. He used the money to buy his release, and on his return home, granted Maggie and her heirs the permanent lease of their land as thanks, showing how much he had changed.

agriculture animals baby blur
A definitely not-scabbit sheep (a decidedly cute one, don’t you think?)

See, the reivers were a clever bunch, and the infamous tale of the ‘Scabbit sheep’ tells that nicely.

A group of Charltons had ridden into Cumberland, rather than Scotland (attacks on fellow countrymen were not unheard of – not all attacks crossed the border), and stole several hundred sheep from the Grahams, before riding home and putting the sheep with their own. Within days, they realised all was not well – the Grahams’ sheep had been infected with sheep scab, which they had now passed onto the Charltons’ own herd. They returned to the Grahams’ land, and killed several men, leaving behind a written warning: Next time gentlemen cam to tak ther shepe, they were no to be scabbit.

There are so many others to choose from, and I like to think that the romantic tale of Will and Meg might just have made it into the collection too – what do you think?

 

 

The Story Behind the Story: the Corsican Widow

This week, Vanessa Couchman takes over the blog to tell us about the story behind her second Corsica novel, The Corsican Widow.

I am a self-confessed history nut. I’m lucky, then, to live in Southwest France, which is absolutely steeped in history. Some of my novels and short stories are set in the area where I live.

But I have also been captivated by the savagely beautiful island of Corsica in the Mediterranean. I can’t get back there often enough, although this year, sadly, I suspect we won’t have the chance.

Continue reading “The Story Behind the Story: the Corsican Widow”

Food, Glorious Food!

This week (11-17 May 2020) is National Vegetarian Week here in the UK.  The aim of the event is to make more people aware of vegetarian food and to encourage them to try something new.  Whilst I’m not a vegetarian myself, I’m very interested in vegetarian cookery, and I’ve written a short post about it elsewhere, which you can read here.

But in any case, I never need an excuse to think about food – and that includes in my writing.  I like to use food as a metaphor, and it works very well in a romance-based plot.  It gives the heroine (and the readers) an insight into how much more enriched her life could be if she chooses to share it with the hero.

This can be seen in the following extract from The Unkindest Cut of All.  The heroine, Sarah, would be the first to admit that her cooking and housekeeping skills leave much to be desired.  Enter Martin, bearing culinary gifts and much more besides…

TUCOA front

 

Whilst [Sarah] was waiting for the kettle to boil she realised too late that the bread she’d been keeping for toast had gone mouldy. Ferreting around in the cupboard, she eventually unearthed a half-consumed packet of breakfast cereal of unknown vintage. As she poured a bowlful, she found herself thinking that it looked like lumpy sawdust. And as she took a mouthful, she found herself thinking that the resemblance didn’t end there.

When her phone rang, it was such a welcome diversion from her inedible breakfast that Sarah didn’t have time to wonder who on earth might be calling her so early on a Sunday morning. Her heart leapt as she saw Martin’s name on the display. She chewed furiously to empty her mouth of the tasteless gunge.

“Hello?”

“Sarah? It’s Martin. I hope I didn’t wake you up.”

Sarah usually had a stock response to this: “No, that’s all right – the phone was ringing anyway.” But this, she decided, was hardly the time for wisecracks.

“Hi, Martin. No, you didn’t. I’ve been awake for a while. Didn’t sleep terribly well, to be honest. How about you?”

“The same. Look, I need to talk to you. Can I come round?”

“Yes, of course.” Sarah’s heart leapt again. “When?”

“Any time now. I’m in the road outside.”

Sarah caught her breath. “Hang on. I’ll come to the door.”

By the time she had fumbled with her keys and got the front door open, Martin was already standing on the doorstep. He looked tired, but was smiling, and holding a bulging paper bag.

“Breakfast? I wasn’t quite sure what you’d like, so I got some of each.”

The bag felt warm in Sarah’s hands as she took it and peered inside. It contained two croissants and two large pains au chocolat. Sarah’s mouth watered as the buttery scent caressed her nostrils. She looked up and smiled gratefully. Martin’s eyes were as dark as the chocolate. She looked down again quickly, hoping that her cheeks didn’t look as flushed as they felt.

“Mmm. Thank you. These look divine. Please, come in.”

As Martin hung up his coat, Sarah gratefully cleared away her unfinished bowl of cereal and set out two plates and knives and an extra mug. Her earlier excavations in the cupboard had also yielded an unopened jar of apricot jam. She put this on the table too, positioning it carefully so that Martin couldn’t see the Best Before date…

 

The Unkindest Cut of All is an Ocelot Press publication, and is available in paperback and e-book formats.

Music and story…

What role does music play in your life? It’s Jen here on the blog today, and for me, music is a vital part of my day.

The Raided Heart

I cannot work in silence, so now I’m working from home, without the general hum of an open-plan office, my Echo Dot is almost permanently tuned to Heart 90s or Fearne Cotton’s new Sounds of the Nineties, keeping motivation high with a never-ending playlist of feelgood cheesy pop.

It’s the same with my writing – I can focus more easily when I have music playing. Usually it’s back to the nineties and noughties, playing old boyband albums I know so well I almost don’t hear them, but then, whilst I was working on The Raided Heart, a friend mentioned that he created Spotify playlists for all of his works-in-progress. The result was this playlist, a combination of songs which made me think of certain scenes, or which simply put me in the mood when I wanted to get into the writing flow.

One example is The Dance, by Westlife. As I said, I listen to boybands all the time, with Boyzone and Westlife being my favourites, so I must have heard the song so many times before last year, but hearing it again, and the sentiment behind it, suddenly made me think about a key scene in the book. And yes, if I’m honest, I began seeing the scene in front of me, in film, with this song as the soundtrack. I know that’s how some writers picture their scenes, and again, music is a big part of how it would all come together.

amplifier analogue audio bass

Music can also be a big inspiration for writers. At one of my first Swanwicks, there was a session called Songspiration, listening to both big hits and lesser-known tracks, using the music to generate ideas. For some, the story was clear, putting yourself into the world of Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, for example, but with others, it was more the feeling that the tone of the music generated, and putting that down on paper. It was a wonderful way of coming up with ideas, and one I’ve since used myself in a workshop.

But back to those playlists… I’m currently working on a number of projects, and this time, I’m building the tracks up as I go. The One Before The One is the working title of a contemporary romance, and you can find its playlist here; any thoughts as to what this one might be about? And for the following books in the Historic Hearts series, I’m building this collection, but as you can see, it needs a lot of work!

To other writers out there, what’s your relationship like with music as you write? Does it distract, or inspire? And readers, do you need silence to immerse yourself in the world an author’s created for you?

I’d love to hear from you…

Augustine is Released Today

We’re excited to announce that Vanessa Couchman’s novella, Augustine, is released today on Amazon Kindle under the Ocelot Press imprint.

Augustine is a prequel to her Alouette trilogy, and it’s set against the rolling hills and perched villages of Southwest France in the late 19th-century. Vanessa lives in southern France, not far from where the action takes place, and there’s plenty of period detail woven into the story, drawn from her researches and knowledge of the area. The backdrop is a way of life that lasted for centuries but has now disappeared forever.

In the book, you’ll meet Augustine Bousquet and Joseph Vernhes, who appear again in Overture, Book 1 of the Alouette trilogy. Augustine can be read as a standalone or before Overture.