Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Guest author - Samantha Holt

As mentioned in my last post, I have been lucky enough to secure an interview with Samantha Holt, best-selling author of historical romances including her latest, The Angel's Assassin.

And so, without further ado, here is the interview:

What is your name and where do you come from?
Samantha Holt and I come from Warwickshire, England.
You write medieval romances. What is your absolute favourite time during the medieval period, and why?
I enjoy writing around the era of the Third Crusade - late 1100’s to the early 1200’s, though my writing spans from shortly after the Norman invasion, up until the 1400’s. But for me, those times were so full of turmoil and life was still quite gritty, so it adds an extra edge to my stories. I don’t like my characters to be too comfortable perhaps!
When and how did you initially become interested in this period? Have you studied it formally or did your interest spring from other roots?
I studied history and archaeology in college but didn’t resurrect my love for history until I was older. I can’t really say what drew me to the medieval era so strongly - again, the turmoil is a big pull for me and the fact that life was so very different to what it is now. Although I adore the Regency/Victorian periods, life was not as raw as it was in medieval times. I like the added excitement that a sword fight or a castle siege can bring in.
Where do you do your research? Libraries, record offices, or mainly on the internet? 
The internet is great as you have information at your fingertips but you do have to be careful as not all sources are trustworthy. I have a few very trusted sites that I use and several large books that I refer to a lot. Ideally, I like to visit places. We’re lucky in Warwickshire to have some wonderfully preserved castles and sometimes that is the best way of doing research. To feel the chill in the air as you step into the stairwell of a tower is just amazing and I love to draw that experience into my stories.
Does your research inspire new ideas, or do you stick clearly to the object of the research you are doing?
It varies. My most historical book so far, A Summer Siege, was written entirely around one event in history and that story only developed through my research of that moment in time. Certainly ideas spring up when I’m researching something but generally I remain focused on the task at hand. People don’t realise quite how much research goes into the books sometimes - it’s the smallest of things that count - and if I tried to write a story off everything I researched, I’d be writing for an eternity!
 What makes your book different than others in your genre?
My use of language is different. I know my native English tongue differs slightly but I hope that brings a sense of realism, particularly when it comes to dialogue. I love writing dialogue and I think that comes across. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to visit places featured in my books (castles etc) and I hope to bring a sense of realism into my stories by blending my experiences into my tales.
How long did it take you to write your book?
Generally I take about three months. I write full time so I put in anything between 4-6 hours of writing a day.
What are some writing goals for the future?
I’d like to perhaps expand into a different historical era or even write some contemporary romances. For the moment, I still have some untapped medieval stories but I imagine there’s only so many you can write. Having said that, I’m always sure the one I’m working on will be my last one and then another miraculously comes along.
Samantha Holt resides in Warwickshire, England, with her twin girls, having followed her soldier husband around the UK for nearly 10 years. Growing up in Hampshire, she was inspired by the authors Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell, both of which lived and wrote only miles from her home town.
Samantha loves the romance genre and has been devouring romantic literature for as long as she can remember. History is another passion of hers and she loves to combine her love for history and romance into exciting and passionate tales.
Follow Samantha on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/romanticfiction

Monday, October 15, 2012

Missing the homeland

On moving from one’s native land to live abroad, it is a sure thing that there will be things one misses from the home country. And not always the things one expects one will miss. I was reminded of this today when I visited a factory that manufactures sweets.

People asked me when I was about to leave England what I thought I would miss most. Near the top of that list, I knew, was Marmite. Well, by occasional visits home, by asking visitors to bring pots with them and now, when one can buy it online from Amazon among other companies, I have not, to date, run out of it. If you’re not English, you may not understand this, but Marmite is an English institution. It is said that you either love it or hate it and I, obviously, come into the former category. It is thick, brown, salty and sticky (and edible, no misunderstandings, please). It is a by-product of yeast and it is vegetarian-friendly. The taste is strong and a limited amount spread on bread is lovely; spread it too thick and the taste is somewhat overwhelming. Hardly anyone here likes it (good – all the more for me), but I couldn’t envisage life without it.

There are, however, many things that I hadn’t really thought about that I now long for. Take bacon. In a nation where pig is the most frequently eaten meat, they don’t make real bacon. There is one more imported pack in my freezer that I am debating taking out, but I have to ration myself. Also strange, considering that the Germans do use ginger in biscuits and cakes, is that proper ginger biscuits – tasting nicely of ginger – are not available. Cook-in sauces, for the lazy cook, are for sale, but different varieties from those on the shelves in an English supermarket. Similarly I have never found chilli powder that is quite right. Self-raising flour is missing and I had to go to a specialist shop to buy cornflour. I have a big tub of genuine English beef stock cubes and some packets of other flavours – all I have found here is jars of stock powder which, again, are just not the same. Golden syrup (an ingredient essential if you have to resort to DIY ginger nuts) can’t be found and there is only a poor substitute. Strong cheeses are not so popular, and although I can buy, in some places, pre-packed cheddar, it is not the well-matured cheese that I prefer. The list of foodstuffs goes on, never mind the lack of decent vegetables – even in summer you can buy plenty of winter vegetables but hardly a fresh pea to be found; I have only seen plastic-wrapped mange touts to date. The only sweetcorn comes in tins apart from the odd plastic-wrapped pair of corn cobs. Nobody knows what a broad bean is (and, sadly, although I bought a packet of seeds in England in the spring so I could grow my own, they went missing so I haven’t managed to do so. How can I lose a packet of broad bean seeds?). A neighbour grows her own green beans and kindly gave me some in the summer, but if you want to buy those they too come mostly pre-packed in plastic and the quality is often not the best. A couple of years ago I was in the very west of Germany, close to the French border, and we made an excursion over to France to delight in the choice in a supermarket there. People living near to where we were staying said that they often did the same, so it’s not only me.

Of course, buying books in the English language is something I miss. I buy most of my books online now, but it would be so nice to go into a bookshop and just browse. There is a bookshop in Erfurt, the capital of Thüringen, which stocks a few English books, but the selection is limited and the prices high – no discounts there. I prefer to read books that were written in English in that language, although I now do read others in German if they were written in anything but English, so I am now an avid online buyer. Inevitably, there is no library available for me.

Newspapers can be bought, although at a price, and in this distinctly rural area if I wanted to buy them I would have to order. Once again, they can sometimes be found in Erfurt, in the shop at the station, but they are cut-down versions of the papers in the English shops. I have resorted to getting my crosswords online from an English newspaper site, and I read my news online. (I stopped reading The Times when they put up a pay-wall. Since I only browse and don’t read all the content, it’s not worth my while paying on a regular basis for access I use spasmodically.)

I have got used to many of the differences in the products I can buy here. Loo rolls are smaller and, almost without exception, white. No buying toilet tissue to colour-coordinate with the bathroom! Tissues are not bought in boxes but in small packets (usually in packs of small packets). Buying drinks by the case is common practice, whether beer, lemonade, cola and other soft drinks or even Sekt (sparkling wine, which is very drinkable and reasonably priced). There is a deposit on beer and soft drink bottles (but not wine or spirit bottles, strangely), although the way some people throw bottles – usually beer – around in fields and the forest you might not realise this if you didn’t live here. Bread is darker and heavier as a rule – white loaves can be bought but tend to be sliced and sold for toast and not very tasty. Bread rolls, though, are pretty good. Cakes are heavy and stodgy, and popular. I’ve just realised I’ve got back to food again. Oh, dear!

So back to the sweet factory. What was I doing there and why did it bring thoughts of things I miss to mind? Well, I went to talk about some translation work. But before I was put onto that I already knew someone who works there – inevitably, she rides with me, which is how I know a lot of people. And a little while ago she brought me a present. Now, although you can buy a Mars or Snickers bar, or a Kit Kat, here, there is some chocolate – my favourites – that hasn’t crossed the channel to this country. I hope Cadbury’s, after their sell-out to America, continue to manufacture the chocolate I know and love, because Milka – very popular here - just doesn’t do it for me. Expensive, good, chocolate is to be had, but not ordinary Dairy Milk. I’d love a Flake just now! Although I have had a bit of chocolate today, since the man who interviewed me ordered some to be brought into his office. And what chocolate! Germany had already acquired Rolls Royce before I came here, but now they have taken over manufacturing Bendicks chocolates. And my friend, as a Christmas present, brought me, not knowing that they are my all-time favourites, a box of Bitter Mints. Now proudly manufactured not an hour’s drive away from here, in order to be sent back to England – they don’t sell them locally. I walked from the car park to the factory with the scent of chocolate wafting in my direction. I’m glad I don’t work there; I don’t think I could resist the temptation on a daily basis. But I do have a welcome source of chocolates, at least intermittently.

So now I have to type up the test translation I did earlier and email it back to the chocolate factory. But before I do, I have one more thing to add. Please look out for my next blog in a few days’ time, when I shall be featuring an interview with best-selling historical romance author Samantha Holt.  

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

My personal space is my cultural space

After over five years of living in Germany, I am aware that there are some areas in which the English mind set and the German mind set do not agree. I’m not talking  here about things like a sense of humour – I have friends with a very good sense of humour. But lately I’ve been wondering why I’ve been getting stressed in certain situations, asking myself whether it is them or me at fault. Then, following an encounter with someone I only know slightly, I suddenly realised what the problem is. And it’s not so much a case of them or me as them (the Germans) and us (the English). Unless I am an exaggerated example of Englishness in the aspects that I have observed.

There is a wonderful book called Watching the English. Written by a social anthropologist by the name of Kate Fox, it examines many of the traits that make us, the English race.  One of the conclusions she draws is that the English are repressed and inhibited. Now you may or may not agree with this, and your opinion may depend on whether you are English or not, but in certain respects I feel, now I have lived here for a while, that she has a good point.

Our repressions and inhibitions are only a part of the picture, but certainly I hadn’t been in Germany long before I came across situations where the lack of inhibitions here are clear. Having been brought up in a very inhibited family, where the bathroom door stayed locked when the room was occupied, and as far back as I can remember I only ever saw family members when we were all fully dressed, my first visit to a swimming pool over here was an eye opener, to say the least. The changing room was mixed. Now, I’ve been in amateur dramatics and shared a dressing room with the entire cast, but a certain amount of modesty and decorum was exercised at all times. Apart from one stage manager (who filled that role once and once only) who would peer through the door and leer at the woman as they changed, everyone turned away discretely as a member of the opposite sex disrobed. Or, if it was not possible to do this, they made a point of not staring. In this swimming pool changing room, everyone let it all hang out, wandering around as if it was quite normal. And indeed it seemed that here it was. Luckily for my own inhibited self, and that of my God daughter who was with me, there was a very small number of cubicles available for the faint of heart. We immediately occupied two of these and emerged clad in our costumes having hidden our nakedness from the view of the general public.  

I have also been involved in a number of medieval markets, which are extremely popular here. The majority of the participants stay overnight on and around the market site and either camp or live in vans for the period of the market – generally a weekend at least. One of the features of these markets is often a giant bath, generally wooden, filled with warm water (with a bit of chlorine or similar for hygiene purposes) and with enough space to accommodate a number of people – eight to ten is normal – sitting on a wooden ledge around the tub. And most people strip off and leap in. Starkers. On my first occasion at a market with one of these, I did not participate. Later on I took a swimming costume. But nobody is in the least concerned about the size and shape of their fellow occupants. I just can’t get past that barrier. The only times I have been persuaded to strip off a little – and on those two occasions it was only the trousers that came off – were when I rode in first the sea and then a lake, bareback on the horse. Then it made sense to take off not only the saddle but also the clothes I didn’t want to get soaked. I showed off no more then than I would have done wearing a swimming costume.

It is not only that Germans aren’t bothered about displaying their bodies. It is what they are prepared to talk about quite openly that goes against the grain. I’m not talking about anything smutty here, unless you count financial matters to be smutty. But they have no hesitation in asking you straight out what you paid for something, what you earn, how much money you have. I remember a work colleague back home showing us the details of the house she and her very high-earning husband were buying. She had carefully blanked out the price. (Someone went straight on the internet afterwards and had a look at the estate agent’s website, telling all and sundry what he had found, but that’s beside the point. She didn’t want us to know and nobody discussed it with her when we did know the price.) And in England I never knew anyone who would push for details if you were obviously reluctant to give them away, unless they were a very close friend or family member. One of the first German visitors to the first flat I lived in over here looked around, asked how much the rent was, commented that some expensive work had been done, and quizzed me a little more on finances. This was the second time I had met her and she hadn’t been in the flat fifteen minutes. I have worked with people for years and not known what they earned, how much their mortgage or rent was and how much they had paid for their important possessions. Unless they chose to tell me.

The thing that has been getting me stressed, however, was talking not just about finances but about one’s personal affairs in general. Now not everything in my life is going smoothly at the moment. But that is the extent of what I am prepared to reveal. My friends know about some of the issues and aren’t afraid to quiz me about them. In public, in a group, in the pub even. I know they mean well, but I don’t feel comfortable about discussing these things with everyone. And the thing that brought this home to me was the aforementioned someone I know only slightly quizzing me about some things that I would prefer were not aired in public. Obviously my mutual friends had told her, but she then made it plain that she knew a lot of detail and didn’t hesitate to ask me for more. My epiphany came then. In England it just wouldn’t be done. The odd tactless person might let on that they knew things, that you were obviously being talked about in your absence – and that does happen of course - but most would keep their mouths shut until you volunteered the information. I talk to people over the internet sometimes. I belong to a group on Facebook and I have befriended one person with whom I chat regularly. She asked me something fairly personal one day then hastily apologised and told me I didn’t have to answer if I didn’t want to. As it happens I didn’t mind in the circumstances. But nobody over here would dream of asking whether I mind. If I prevaricate they merely press further. Which leaves me with a dilemma. Do I carry on getting more and more English and repressed and saying nothing, or do I confront the whole group and tell them that it just isn’t English, it isn’t done? When in Rome and all that, but if it intrudes on your own personal comfort zone is it acceptable? I haven’t yet come up with an acceptable answer to that question.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A heartfelt plea to road users everywhere

Whatever your thoughts about the rights and wrongs of horses on the roads, might I ask you to read this to the end. This applies, wherever you are in the world, especially if you don’t like horses and horse riders!

Living where I do, and riding horses regularly, I count myself extremely lucky. It is possible to ride for hours without riding on the roads, sometimes without even having to cross one. But, inevitably, it is sometimes necessary to share the roads with cars and other vehicles – especially when riding in a carriage, which can’t always stay away from roads. The horses in our group are almost without exception extremely good in traffic and hardly bat an eyelid at heavy lorries, tractors or anything loud and noisy that they encounter. But there are exceptions. Horses are not machines and, however good the rider, there can be times when the horse is not on its best behaviour. Most of the horses we have in our group have been together for some time and are used to traffic; they even live part of the year near a railway line and aren’t in the least bit afraid of trains passing close by. But there are a couple of young horses which don’t know the ropes. They can only learn about traffic by going out on the roads and will of course be unpredictable, no matter how much care is taken. And occasionally a new horse comes along and is initially an unknown quantity. It is also the case that if one of the horses is ridden out alone it is more likely to be frightened by something unusual than if it has the security of other horses around it.
In England I had to ride on the roads far too often, and the behaviour of some drivers defied belief. They drive past horses too close, too fast, and in many cases extremely recklessly. If a driver gives the horse a wide berth and slows down sensibly, I try to thank him or her every time. As a driver myself, I am well aware that not acknowledging sensible driving can irritate those who do slow down and make them more liable to drive carelessly past the next horse they see. I get annoyed when I slow down and riders seem to ignore this. This is not to say that all drivers are inconsiderate. On the contrary, there are many who do slow down and if you are one of them then all riders do appreciate this – even those who are not considerate enough to thank you, for whom I apologise.

Over the past two or three weeks I have witnessed, here in Germany, several examples of idiotic driving. On the first occasion a group of us – seven horses – was crossing a road. A motor bike came up to us as we were in the process of crossing and was clearly irritated at having to wait. The rider sat on his bike revving his engine until the last two horses were on the road, then he sped past the heels of those horses – on his back wheel. On the second occasion I was sitting in a carriage pulled by two horses, followed by one being ridden. Several motor bikes came past and one in particular made sure he revved up just as he was parallel with the horse behind the carriage. Then a Mercedes convertible with the top down followed the motor bikes and accelerated hard to overtake us just before a bend. Now you might think this was a good thing as he would get past us faster that way, but if he had overtaken a car immediately before a blind bend he would have been taking just as big a risk of another car coming in the other direction. Yesterday, once again crossing a road, a pickup didn’t even slow down as it approached, once more risking running into the back of a horse. And recently, riding through a village, I was parallel to a car in which the driver had been sitting as I rode closer. She could see me quite clearly. She waited until I was as close as I could be before starting her engine. I was as startled as the horse, so I can’t blame my horse for jumping.

If you don’t like horses, and/or believe that horses shouldn’t be on the roads, believe me we only ride on them or cross them when we have to. It is much nicer riding over fields and through forests. But sometimes, even over here, we have no choice. So would you please consider the possible consequences of not waiting those few seconds for us, or of passing us as fast and as close as you can. Don’t forget, too, that if something goes off with a loud bang, or something flies in front of the horse’s face in a high wind, it will not only be the horse but also the rider who is, at least, briefly startled. It only takes a split second for an accident to happen. Approaching horses cautiously minimises the risk.

It is true that one of the possible scenarios if the horse is frightened is that the rider may fall off. The horse could fall in a ditch and injure itself, possibly fatally. You may think this is fine as you won’t be affected. Indeed, if you drive away fast enough and there are no witnesses, it is unlikely that you will have to pay any penalty, especially if the rider doesn’t live to tell the tale.

But, as I said before, a horse is not a machine. Another scenario is that the horse might leap towards you rather than away from you. It might turn round and kick out in the direction of your car or motor bike. A horse is a heavy animal and a kick can be very powerful (I know, I’ve been on the wrong end of one). In this situation it is highly possible that the horse, and probably the rider, might be badly injured. And so might you. Your car may be written off and you along with it. A well-aimed kick in the direction of a car or motor bike could have disastrous consequences – for you. Had our horses not been extremely well-behaved, imagine what might have happened to the motor cyclist riding on his back wheel. It is not only the horse and rider that might be killed – it is you. And nobody wants that to happen.

If you see two horses being ridden abreast on the road, this is not usually, as you might think, just so that the riders can chat amongst themselves. Sometimes the horse on the inside is younger and in training, or just not as confident in traffic as the one on the outside, who is acting as a shield and to give the other horse a modicum of confidence.    

So can I please ask you, if you come across horses on the roads, to think about what might happen. You don’t know the horse or how it will react. You may be in a hurry, but it is better to be a minute late than not to get where you are going at all. Please, please, slow down, give horses plenty of space as you pass them and don’t overtake them where it wouldn’t be safe to overtake another vehicle. 

Rant over. Thank you for reading this far.