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Category: Characters

The Story Behind the Story

Reconquista was published in Spring 2016 and launched at the Clapham Book Festival ( see Sunshine and Flamenco Guitar ). But the writing of it began many, many years before, when the god-son of the author, a thirteen year-old named Luke, first came to visit Jerez de la Frontera.

Luke liked numbers and mathematics, but also history and his god-mother thought about how to engage him with the places in the ancient town and the events that had happened there long ago. So she began to write a story which was then called ‘On the Frontier‘, beginning with the siege of Jerez by King Alfonso X in 1264.

It’s main character, as readers of Reconquista will know, was Nathan, a fourteen year old ( which was, at the time, what Luke wanted to be ). He had an older cousin named Rebecca who lived with Nathan and his father . Rebecca is the name of Luke’s younger sister.

Just to be fair to the author’s other god-son, she included a character called Thomas of Whelmstone, an English doctor who had come to Jerez with the King so as to learn to be a surgeon. The real Thomas was then studying at Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital in London to be a surgeon and he came from a place in Devon named Whelmstone Barton. His brother is named Ben.  Of course, there is a character named Ben Isaacs in the book, although he isn’t related to the Thomas of Whelmstone character and, in fact is nothing like the real Thomas’s brother.

So the story began and the author sent the first two chapters to Luke, her god-son.  He had soon read them and wanted more, which was when his god-mother realised that she had better work out just what was going to happen in the story, from the beginning right through to the end. She realised that she was actually writing a novel. The rest of the story was eventually sent to Luke, chapter by chapter.

Years passed.

The writer wrote other books, like her short story collection The Village. She set up The Story Bazaar web-site and social media sites. But the manuscript of Luke’s story was always at the back of her mind. Then in 2015 she decided to get it out and look at it again.  Luke was now a young man, he was working in the accounts department of a charity in the Midlands and he had long since forgotten Nathan and Rebecca, Atta and Senor Thomas.

On the Frontier‘ wasn’t anywhere near ready for the wide world. It had to be thoroughly edited and much of it was re-written, to put much more emphasis upon the three young protagonists. The title was changed ( the author asked readers of her web-site to nominate their favourite, see Vote for your Favourite Title ) and the new book produced. Then Reconquista was published, with a dedication just inside its frontispiece to Luke, Rebecca, Thomas and Ben.

The author will be talking about the story behind the story and reading from Reconquista in the Storytelling tent at Crystal Palace Overgound Festival on 17th June at Crystal Palace Park. Come along and listen! It’s FREE!

Characters

dfw-ja-r-cover-3d-nologoWhen I was writing ‘Reconquista‘ I had a discussion with a number of other writers about how much time it takes to develop a book’s main characters .

I did quite a lot of work to understand the personalities of the main characters in my own mind, even if some of their traits and foibles didn’t eventually appear in the final book. So, for example, I could tell you what Nathan thinks about girls; why Rebecca likes preparing certain foods and that Atta likes particular kinds of music.

This wasn’t a waste of my time.  The extra depth of understanding would help me in future. Now that I am writing the sequel, I know, instinctively, how my characters will react in new circumstances.  I can also develop them further by building on what I already know about them.

20151016_172105All of the characters who set out on their journeys in the first book now face a very different set of circumstances when they return home.  They have all, to an extent, grown up.  The most obvious example is Miguel, who is now ready to take on the mantle of the head of his household and family ( though he still doesn’t like authority ). To an extent, he has been preparing for this his whole life, though trying to avoid the responsibility.

Atta too has matured, he has lost his innocence and become much more sceptical about the world and the people around him.  He used to idolise his uncle ( and still, to an extent, idolises his father ) but that absolute faith has been punctured by reality.  Uncle Taf isn’t a terrible person, he’s just not the perfect IMG-20151222-WA0000being Atta thought he was. The Atta we meet in the sequel is a much more pragmatic person and much more independent minded than the Atta who we first saw on the battlements of Jerez during the siege.

Rebecca has grown from being a clever but somewhat foolhardy girl into a strong and strong-minded young woman.  Her experiences have made her self-reliant, like Atta, and toughened her up.  She is now much more likely to question things and take her own decisions, to try to determine her own future.

Ben has, perhaps, had the most traumatic growing to do.  He has become both self-aware and aware of how others see him (this new knowledge makes him ashamed).  He is still pompous and self-regarding, but he is much less judgemental of others, having learned a few lessons about his own behaviour.  He is also in a different position in regard to his family than before they all set out.

forge-512629_1280All of them are still feeling their way, but the individual who is searching most obviously for self-definition is Nathan. He knew only what he didn’t want, but he now begins to realise that he has to decide what he does want and that he can do that best by himself. The sequel is, to an extent, his attempt to define himself and make decisions which will determine his path for much of the rest of his life.

Telling how all this unfolds, within an exciting plot and sub-plots is what i am trying to do right now.  I’m already on Part Two of the sequel to ‘Reconquista’. I’ll let you know how I’m progressing.

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Plots

The idea that every story has a beginning, a middle and an end goes back to ancient times and the writings of Aristotle, the Greek philosopherdfw-ja-r-cover-3d-nologo.  The story I am now writing does too, but mine is complicated by being spread over two books – ‘Reconquista‘ and its sequel – and each of these also has a beginning, a middle and an end.

So, although there was a suitable end to ‘Reconquista‘, there were also unresolved plot lines.  At one level, therefore, much of what must happen in the sequel has already been decided ( although how each element is resolved is another matter ). Warning! If you haven’t read ‘Reconquista‘ what follows gives away some of its plot.

warning-843608_1280An example is, what happens to Don Reza?  At the end of the first book we assume that he is still being held captive in the mountains. Atta is desperate to rescue him. So one part of the plot must address this.  We already know, from what the cavalry lieutenant says to Nathan and Senor Thomas after their meeting with the King, that he has been ordered to tackle the bandits.  Logically then, this is a major grazalema6driver of plot and any ‘rescue attempt’ is likely to involve a number of our main characters, and quite a lot of jeopardy.

Similarly, we left Nathan living with the galley slaves, we don’t know what he’ll decide to do next.  Will he return home?  If he does, what sort of reception will he receive from his father?  If he doesn’t, what will he do? This is the most open-ended of the unresolved issues at the end of book one.

The other cliff hanger is, of course, Rebecca’s answer to Ben’s proposal.  This is the element which I am asked about most often.  Does she accept him? I am not going to tell. Sorry, you’ll have to read the next book to find out.

In addition, however, to these existing plot drivers there is also the historical situation to take into account, because this is an historical novel and includes real events. This is likely to generate plot.

KingAlfonsoOnce King Alfonso X was re-established in Jerez we know that he expelled its Moorish inhabitants and granted much of their property to his own followers.  The ‘Repartamiento’, a document drawn up at the time at Alfonso’s behest, tells us how the property was distributed, to knights and to their followers in turn. So the city is very different in the sequel, both physically, given the reconstruction after the bombardment, and in terms of its inhabitants.

This would be evident to the characters and must be factored into the story. How is Atta going to feel now, as one of the few Moors in Jerez?  And how would he react?  The changing circumstances are also an opportunity to introduce some new and interesting characters to add to those we already know.

By early spring 1265 King Alfonso was in Seville, ( see Giralda, below right, which would have been there at that time, just without the bell tower on top ) where he set about raising troops and money for a full-seville-656699_1280scale assault on the Emirate of Granada. The Emir also began gathering forces, from the Arab countries across the sea to the south, so both were preparing for a possible war. Both rulers considered themselves to be men of honour, both, at this point, considered the other was planning to attack.   A dangerous situation for the emissary of the Emir and his nephew in Jerez then, but also a chance for them to take part in real and important events.

So, when I take all these factors into consideration, I find that the plot of the sequel pretty much writes itself ( although there are some surprises too, as you might expect, which are new plot strands ). I, however, have to write the actual words, so I’ll say Adios for now.

The Wise King

220px-Alfonso_X_el_Sabio_(José_Alcoverro)_01Although he isn’t well known in the English-speaking world, King Alfonso X, of Castile and Leon, is widely admired in Europe and the Americas.  He is known as ‘The Wise’ ( El Sabio ) and he appears as a character in ‘Reconquista‘.

So why is he called ‘The Wise’?

First, because he believed that a King should not just rule over his people, but also try to make their lives better. He wrote his ideas in the ‘Siete Partidos‘ or Seven Divisions of the Law, which set out how people should be governed, by a system of laws which applied to everyone, not just in favour of those who were stronger or more powerful. Very forward-looking for the time, these weren’t introduced during Alfonso’s lifetime –170px-Monument_to_Alfonso_X_El_Sabio,_La_Puebla_del_Rio he constantly had problems with his Barons, who wanted more power for themselves.  But it was eventually introduced in Spain and became part of the legal systems in the South American territories conquered by the Spanish conquistadors, including the lands, like California and Louisiana, which became part of the southern United States.

Also because he commissioned scientists, historians and other scholars to write works of science and literature. He was particularly KingAlfonsointerested in astronomy and astrology ( although the two were treated as part of the same discipline in Alfonso’s time ).  The learning of the ancient world, of Greece and Rome, had been lost to western Europe with the fall of the Roman Empire.  But their ideas and writings had been preserved in the East, translated into Arabic. Alfonso asked Moorish and Jewish scholars to draw this together and translate it into Latin and, where possible, into the language of the ordinary people.

So, much knowledge which had been lost became available again. One example was LibroDesJuegasAlfonXAndCourtthe work of a number of Islamic astronomers, based upon work of ancient Greek astronomers like Ptolemy. The King commissioned the Alfonsine Tables, tables of data which allowed astronomers to compute the relative positions of the Sun, Moon and planets.  They were in general use for over three hundred years. The Tables, along with other works, were circulated 220px-Alfonso_LJ_97Vwidely in Europe.

Alfonso was also considered wise because he believed that culture – music, art, poetry and architecture – was important in life. He wrote poetry himself, as well as commissioning works from others and was particularly fond of poems set to music. The Cantigas de Santa Maria or Canticles of the Holy Mary are four hundred and twenty poems set to music, some of which are ascribed to the King himself. We know that he also enjoyed writing love poetry and he enjoyed satirical verses as well.

If you want to know more about King Alfonso’s life you can read more here.  Or there are history books about him and his life.

The Journey Continues

Since ‘Reconquista‘ was published I have received lots of kind comments from questions-1328466_1280readers. Thank you for all your encouragement, I am pleased like readers like the book and I will put all the questions and answers into an ‘Ask the Author’ page, but the question I am asked the most is ‘When will the next book be out?’

Of course, people want to know what happens to their favourite characters and ‘Reconquista‘ ends with lots of things unresolved.  What will Nathan decide to do?  Will he leave Jerez with the former galley slaves? What happens to Don Reza, will Atta and Uncle Taf rescue Grazalema2him from the bandits’ stronghold in the mountains? How does Rebecca respond to Ben’s proposal of marriage? Will Simon be left all alone?

I can’t answer most of these questions ( and I won’t answer others ). This is, in part because I don’t yet know how everything will play out.  I do know some of the answers, but don’t know how they are arrived at. My characters may surprise me. This is all part and parcel of writing a sequel.

Right now I am writing an out-line, chapter by chapter, of the plot. Once I have this skeleton I will begin to put flesh upon it, showing how my characters develop and JerezJulyPlaterosreact to events and to each other. They have all changed since they were last all together in their home town, after all, and need to get to know one another again. And there are the reactions of the towns-people to cope with.  The ‘snippet’ at the end of ‘Reconquista‘ show readers some of what Rebecca meets when she settles down to life in the Plaza Plateros house with Simon.

corsica-224716_1280I also need to do a lot more research, especially about the mountains to the east of Jerez de la Frontera. The peaks around Ubrique and Grazalema are part of a protected nature reserve, so will not have changed that much for many years.  The pine forests there are very old. It is to the fastnesses of the Sierra Pinar and El Endrinal we go, to the acrstic landscape of Evergreen Gorge and Ever Dry Valley, the disinctive peak of San Cristobal and Torreon, the highest point in Cadiz province. There are deep caves and sharp limestone ridges.

Of course there were no tarmac roads in the thirteenth century, the roads were summit-1331728_1280either old Roman paved thoroughfares or dirt tracks and travel was much, much slower.  In ‘Reconquista‘ Atta had maps to help him cross these mountains, but still it took him two months. The maps weren’t  detailed either, indeed, this area wasn’t mapped properly until much later.  Only locals would know the hidden valleys and deep gorges.

ImperialIberianEagleThe mountains are, of course, also the natural frontier between the west of Al Andalus, now ruled over by King Alfonso and the east of Al Andalus, ruled over by Emir Muhammed of Granada.  So expect some confrontation!

I will be returning to Jerez in ten days time, with a view to finding out even more about this landscape  I’ll write about it when I return.

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Why is she called Rebecca?

Just one of the questions I have been asked. There were plenty asked during the launch event for ‘Reconquista‘ on Saturday.  Some of them are below, with answers.

Rebecca is a really feisty character.  Would she really have got away with what she did in the book in the real 13th century?

galleonRebecca is something of an anachronism, she is a bit ‘out of time’.  In the 13th century, women and girls didn’t have the opportunities which they have in 21st century Britain, to travel and have adventures. So I had to make her pretend to be a boy in order to allow her to do so.  She wouldn’t have been aboard ship otherwise.

Most girls from the town or city would be swot-up-1261538_1280mothers and housekeepers for their men-folk, rarely venturing out of their town.  If they were born in the countryside they would work the land.  But they didn’t have very much power, unless they were aristocrats, wealthy in their own right or widowed and rich. That’s not to say they couldn’t think for themselves.

Did the besieging army have all the weapons which are described in the book?

catapult-30061_1280 I am not sure exactly what weapons were used during the siege, though it’s safe to assume that a besieging army would have catapults or throwing machines of various types ( trebuchets and mangonels ).  Most soldiers wore leather armour reinforced with metal and chain-mail.  Full ‘suits of armour’ weren’t widely used until centuries later, even for the knights.

Foot soldiers often had little armour at all, just what they could scavenge from the trebuchet-890637_1280battle field.  They carried long knives and tall, pike-like weapons.  Cavalry was widely used, but not the ‘knight in shining armour’ variety; rather lightly armoured riders on fast, easily maneuverable horses carrying swords or scimitars or bows.

The English long bow which Thomas carries was in use then, but archer-299498_1280by individuals, not in the way it was used en masse as a battle weapon centuries later, like at Crecy or Agincourt.

Are you still writing for our nephew and god-son?

Not directly, although the book is dedicated to him ( and others ).

Did he like the original story?

He said he did at the time and, when he saw the final book, he remembered the characters from the earlier version, so something must have impressed him.

Is there any other character based upon someone real, who you know or know of?

Yes, my other god-son features in the book as Thomas of Whelmstone. He was actually training to be a surgeon at Guys Hospital at the time and it seemed right to include him in the book too, if my nephew god-son was one of the main characters. He’s a practising surgeon now.

Where do the characters’ names come  from? Why is Rebecca called Rebecca?

Some of the surnames, like Calamiel, Barruch and de Lisi are from Jewish records in Jerez of the time.  Al Mansuri and Delgado were both quite common names, then as now.  Nathan, Attalah and Juan, the first names of the three friends at the very start of the book all mean the same thing – ‘son of light’.  Others are typical names, though Rebecca is the name of my god-son’s sister and Ben is the name of my other god-son’s brother ( just so that I don’t leave anyone out )!

How do you know what characters look like, especially the ‘real’ ones?

King Alfonso X is shown in portraits of the time, but portraiture was often formal, LibroDesJuegasAlfonXAndCourtwith the Kings shown how the artist thought a King ought to look, rather than what they actually looked like.  Later statues show him with wavy hair, large eyes and clean shaven ( though he has a beard in the book, because his statue in Jerez has a beard ).

I have’t been able to find a portrait of Muhammed I.  Muslim leaders didn’t have their portraits painted in the same way as Christian Kings.  Nor can I find a portrait of the Governor of Cadiz, who was a real person.  So I’ve described how I think they might have looked.

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