Wild Swimming

RiverChristina here. There’s a lot of talk about wild swimming these days. It seems to be a recent concept, even though the practice is as old as time. The term just means swimming outside in a body of natural water – lakes, rivers, waterfalls or the sea. The main thing is that it isn’t man-made. The phenomenon is increasingly being romanticised (at least here in the UK) as it becomes more popular, with lots of people extolling the virtues of going back to natural bathing in this way. Perhaps because we were all shut in for so long during the pandemic, the freedom of swimming outdoors seems extra special. And I agree – it is!

Lake oneI’ve long been a huge fan of freshwater bathing in particular – I much prefer it to the briny sea, although I’ll happily swim anywhere. Unlike the ocean, though, the water in lakes and rivers isn’t salty so you end up feeling really clean and refreshed. There is no need for a shower afterwards and even your hair will be extra soft.

Read more

Awards and historicals

AscansmHi, here's Jo thinking about awards and historicals.

The wider literary world doesn't take romance novels seriously, and historical romance perhaps lies at the bottom of that particular pile. The term "bodice rippers" was created to ridicule the books, but I haveSweet-savage to admit that it arose in the — to me — dark days of the rape sagas, when clothes were ripped from well-endowed heroines, who apparently were severely inhibited (corset too tight?) and needed violence to realize she wanted to orgasm with the guy. 

But on to awards.

The long list has just been announced for the Orange Prize  for fiction by women. Chair Joanna Trollop was quoted in the Guardian as saying, "Yes, there are a fair number of historical novels, but they vary hugely from a gay cabaret artist in Berlin in the second world war to Island-of-wings-cover-imagea preacher going off to deal with lost souls on a Hebridean island in the 1830s."

It's the "but" that interests me. It's as if historical fiction being on the list needs some apology.

This is the long list, and I admit, I haven't read any of them. Have you? Comments?

  • Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg (Quercus) – Swedish; 1st Novel
  • On the Floor by Aifric Campbell (Serpent's Tail) – Irish; 3rd Novel
  • The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen (The Clerkenwell Press) – American; 4th Novel
  • The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue (Picador) – Irish; 7th Novel
  • Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Serpent's Tail) – Canadian; 2nd Novel
  • The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape) – Irish; 5th Novel
  • The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki (Headline Review) – British; 5th Novel
  • Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon (Quercus) – American; 4th Novel
  • Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding (Bloomsbury) – British; 3rd Novel
  • Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (Faber & Faber) – British; 2nd Novel
  • The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) – British; 2nd Novel
  • The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy (Jonathan Cape) – British; 6th Novel Song-of-Achilles
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Harvill Secker) – American; 1st Novel
  • The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury) – American; 1st Novel
  • Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick (Atlantic Books) – American; 7th Novel
  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury) – American; 6th Novel
  • There but for the by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton) – British; 5th Novel
  • The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard (Alma Books) – British; 2nd Novel
  • Tides of War by Stella Tillyard (Chatto & Windus) – British; 1st Novel
  • The Submission by Amy Waldman (William Heinemann) – American; 1st Novel

I don't count Second World War as historical, given that so many living people were around at the time, so I think this is the "astonishing" collection of historicals.

Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles, the love story of Achilles and Patroclus.

Karin Altenberg's Island of Wings, a marriage tested by St Kilda in the 1830s

TidesStella Tillyard's Tides of War, a marriage tested by the Peninsular war

Three love stories — not so very far from historical romance on the spectrum. What some would say sets them apart is roots deep in reality. Achilles and Patroclus is based on such reality as we have about Ancient Greece. Island of Wings apparently draws on the diaries of a minister of the time. Stella Tillyard is a well known Georgian historian and I gather her novel is notable for period detail.

Historical romances, perhaps by definition, do not use real protagonists, but many are notable for accurate period detail. The balance is probably different, however, for the historical romance author gets bonus points for using her period knowledge unobtrusively, whereas the historical novelist gets them almost by weight. That is not snarky, or even a criticism. Different readers look for different ingredients in fiction and it's lovely to see the ingredients used well and appropriately.

There have been award-winning historical novels that aren't love stories, so is the above list a fluke, or is it something to do with we women writers who so often find human love relationships the most fascinating part of history? Or is that true?

HighlandstormsHere's another award. The UK Romantic Novelists Association just had its award ceremony and the winner for historical is Highland Storms by Christina Courtenay

Follow the link for more details and an excerpt.

You can also see the short list here, and perhaps find some new, interesting reading.


What do you think about the acceptability of historicals in the literary world? Is it a matter of real or almost-real protagonists, the weight of factual detail, or is it mostly presentation — titles and covers? My enquiring mind wants to know.







Scottish Settings with Christina Courtenay!

Photo2Today it is my very great pleasure to welcome back to the blog Honorary Word Wench Christina Courtenay! Christina is the award winning author of wonderful historical fiction and today she is joining me to talk about her latest novel Highland Storms and her love of Scotland. As I have recently returned from a trip to the Highlands and the Scottish Borders this was a very popular topic with me and I hope with lots of other Wench readers too.

"The world is full of romantic settings, but I think for me the absolute favourite has to be the Scottish Highlands.

Being half Swedish, I ought to enthuse about the Scandinavian forests and lakes, the midnight sun and the aurora borealis of course, but although these are lovely too, I’m even more drawn to the lochs and craggy hillsides of the Highlands.  I really can’t explain it, but every time I go there I just feel as if the landscape pulls me in and casts some kind of spell on me.  It’s steeped in history in a way that’s hard to pinpoint, and when the mists hang over the glens or the sun illuminates the heather, I fall in love, completely and utterly.

I take every opportunity I can to visit and the last time I was there I drove around scouting for locationsEileanDonan[1] in which to set my latest novel Highland Storms.  I have to say I was spoiled for choice.  First, I needed a castle (as you do) and visited several to see which one I liked best.  In the end I couldn’t decide on just one so I made my fictional one an amalgamation of them all.  The setting of Eilean Donan, for instance, on a tiny island/peninsula sticking out into a loch was perfect, as was the craggy exterior.  The inside of other castles seemed more suitable though as sadly Eilean Donan doesn’t have its original interior, having been reconstructed in the early 20th century.  Culcreuch Castle, which is now a hotel, had extremely thick (twelve foot?) walls – essential to my plot – and the views over Loch Ness from Castle ScLochNessUrquhart are superb, exactly what I wanted.  The area around Loch Leven provided me with even more inspiration (as well as a chance to test how cold the water was!).  Of course, wherever you go in the Highlands, you are bombarded with sights that set your mind turning.  Even my younger daughter, who normally finds landscapes and sight-seeing boring, was hanging out of the car window exclaiming in awe at every new vista that opened up before us.  I had to agree and I could totally understand why the people who were forced to emigrate never forgot their beautiful homeland.

On a practical level, visiting the Highland Folk Museum at Newtonmore nearScotland_002new Kingussie (and isn’t that a lovely name?!) proved the most rewarding for me.  There, I had the chance to see for myself what an old Highland dwelling looked like and how it was built using materials available locally – stone, timber, turf and heather.  I was also able to experience what it felt like to be inside one.  I sat next to a peat fire, breathing in the scent of wood smoke (which also stayed in my hair and clothes afterwards – and how!), my eyes had to adjust to the gloom, and I imagined what it must have been like to huddle in there by the meager fire on a cold and wet autumn evening.  With a few cows at one end in a byre, and the hut crammed with people, it was probably a lot warmer than just being on my own in there and quite cosy.  Sitting on tiny stools round the fire you escape the worst of the smoke, which rises and seeps out through the thatch in the roof.  A cauldron hanging over the hearth would spread the appetizing aroma of nettle soup or beef broth and I saw how bannocks would have been cooked on a griddle.  It was all very simple, but since the inhabitants spent most of their time outdoors and had very few possessions, all they needed was warmth and shelter for the night.  It was perfect!

ScThatchedHutsThis outdoor folk museum contained lots of different dwellings, a larger one for the tacksman – the most important man of the township (village) – and smaller ones for the cottars and for craftsmen such as the weaver.  I was surprised to find that weavers were most often men who went from village to village, being employed to make cloth out of the supply of wool created by the women during the year.  I suppose the women were too busy with other things most of the time as the inhabitants would have been largely self-sufficient – it was definitely a hard life!

Near the township was a reconstructed shieling hut.  The shielings, as you probably know, were the summer pasture grounds high up on the hillsides, where at least half the village spent a few months while the cattle grazed and grew fat.  I needed a shieling hut for the plot of my story and if I hadn’t seen one with my own eyes and gone inside I wouldn’t have known that my six-foot-plus hero would have to stand bent over inside as well, not just in the very low doorway.  Not to mention having to sleep curled up, which wouldn’t be very comfortable – the sleeping platform was too short even for me and I’m only 5 foot 3 on a good day!

Another open air museum in Auchindrain (again, such a lovely evocative name!) near Inveraray gave meScotland2_045 further inspiration, even though the buildings there were of a later date than my story.  When I visited, a wet mist hung all around the fields and hills nearby and the moisture in the air really felt as though it was seeping into my very bones.  All the houses were damp inside and I realized that a peat fire wouldn’t have stood much chance in conditions like that.  No wonder Highlanders were said to be used to being wet and not mind it!

I could go on, but instead I’d love for you to tell me which is the most romantic setting in the world for you?  I look forward to reading about them! One commenter between now and midnight Tuesday will win a copy of Highland Storms.

Thank you very much, Christina, for a peek into your research and your inspiration. I do agree that Eilean Donan Castle has to be one of the most wonderful settings for a castle anywhere in the world. I'm looking forward to hearing about the other places people think are equally romantic!

Highland Storms, ISBN: 978-1-906931-71-1, is published by Choc Lit 1st November 2011 and is available from http://amzn.to/vuef8C

Here is an extract:

Who can you trust?

Betrayed by his brother and his childhood love, Brice Kinross needs a fresh start. So he welcomes the opportunity to leave Sweden for the Scottish Highlands to take over the family estate.

But there’s trouble afoot at Rosyth in 1754 and Brice finds himself unwelcome. The estate is in ruin and money is disappearing.  He discovers an ally in Marsaili Buchanan, the beautiful redheaded housekeeper, but can he trust her?

Marsaili is determined to build a good life. She works hard at being housekeeper and harder still at avoiding men who want to take advantage of her.  But she’s irresistibly drawn to the new clan chief, even though he’s made it plain he doesn’t want to be shackled to anyone.

And the young laird has more than romance on his mind. His investigations are stirring up an enemy.  Someone who will stop at nothing to get what he wants – including Marsaili – even if that means destroying Brice’s life forever …

There is a link to an excerpt here - http://bit.ly/svPrBg

 Christina's website is at: www.christinacourtenay.com