Charlene Newcomb and I have a lot in common when it comes to writing -- both what interests us and what gives us a thrill and sense of accomplishment. Furthermore, Char was recently named a B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree for Men of the Cross, http://www.bragmedallion.com/medallion-honorees/2014-brag-medallion-books/men-of-the-cross-battle-scars So, I'm very pleased to have her answer some questions about herself and her latest book, Men of the Cross, set in the Third Crusade.
Did you want to be an author when you were younger?
My creative energies focused on music when I was young - piano, guitar, rock band. I had casts of characters and story ideas in my head but only committed anything to paper when demanded by English classes. One of those was an alternative historical where the Confederacy had won the Civil War. I didn’t pick up the pen seriously until many years later when I had a number of short stories published in the Star Wars Adventure Journal, a role-playing game magazine licensed by Lucasfilm, Ltd.
I know you have a degree in US History, but you didn’t go to college immediately after graduating from high school. What prompted you to join the Navy? Did your time in military service influence your writing?
I convinced my father to take me to the recruiters office when I was in the 9th grade (around age 14 for your international readers). I’m certain my parents and the recruiters thought it was passing fancy. I wanted a break from school and studies. I loved travel, was interested in learning other languages, and had a patriotic streak. (Shades of my main character Henry de Grey from Men of the Cross? Probably!) “Join the Navy and see the world” sounded like an excellent way to fulfill those dreams. I took the oath at 18 and shipped out to Florida for boot camp. Unfortunately, the “world” wasn’t part of my Naval career. All my training and jobs were stateside, but my experience as a communications technician/voice language analyst did infiltrate my earliest science fiction short stories, which were filled with spies and underground freedom fighters.
With that US History degree, why aren’t you writing historicals set in the United States?
A story set during the Revolutionary War has been on my “to-write” list for as long as I’ve been writing. I’ve mapped out significant plots points, have names for two main characters, and know the opening scenes, but my history degree barely touches on the depth of information I’ll need to write that novel. Life and research for my current book series take most of my time right now.
What prompted you to write a novel about the Third Crusade?
My interest in the Third Crusade was piqued by episodes of the BBC television series Robin Hood that featured Richard the Lionheart. The show may have been filled with historical anachronisms, but the images of war’s impact on young men - what we would call PTSD - and the characters’ loyalty to the king and to each other were powerful. Ever since childhood, I’ve been driven to learn more about subjects that interest me. I dove into translations of primary sources of the crusade and books on the life and times of Richard I. I have the perfect day job to fill that curiosity and research need: I work in a large university library.
You are working on Book 2 of Battle Scars. How long did it take you to write Men of the Cross, and how is progress on the second book coming along?
Men of the Cross began its life as a short story I penned in 2009. I intrigued my critique partners in those ten pages with two knights recently returned from serving Richard the Lionheart in Outremer. How did these men end up defending the Kentish coast in early 1193? Because I was working on another book, I didn’t start writing Men of the Cross until early 2012. The short story became the ending of the novel. While awaiting final editorial comments on Book 1, I completed a rough draft of Book 2, For King and Country. I am revising the last few chapters now. With luck, I’ll begin begin round two of edits by January and then ship the manuscript to beta readers.
Did you uncover any surprising historical persons, places, events or things in your research?
Contemporary chroniclers brought events to life. There were times I felt like I was reading fiction rather than an historical diary of everyday events in the lives of the men marching towards Jerusalem. The conditions of the march, the weather, how these men survived (or not). The tapestry of their lives and times fills me with incredible respect, and downright awe. On a lighter note, I learned that it can snow in Jerusalem. I guess it is like Kansas - until you’ve been here, you only have a perception in your mind of what it is like based on television, movies, or the news. Everyone remembers flat farmland and tornadoes from Wizard of Oz, when in reality, the northeast part of the state has beautiful rolling hills and gorgeous prairie. I can imagine wagon trains and buffalo as I drive along the I-70 corridor towards Kansas City. And though I haven’t traveled to Israel, I did experience it with King Richard’s army through the chroniclers.
Why should we read this book?
Men of the Cross is a story of loyalty, friendship and love during wartime. It is the human drama against actual historical events as seen through the eyes of two knights. One is a young, naive, and devout Christian: Henry is gung-ho, ready to take up arms in the name of God. Stephan is only two years older, but he has been fighting at Richard’s side for five years. Stephan’s loyalty to Richard is what drives him. He follows his king on crusade and has little regard for the Church. If you like a bit of adventure and humor with your historical fiction this may be the book for you.
What are some of the complications in the book?
The harsh brutalities of war - moving armies thousands of miles - the politics of Richard, Philip of France, Leopold of Austria, the Holy Roman Emperor - Saladin’s tactics - questioning beliefs taught about the Church, about life, about love - post-traumatic stress syndrome - same-sex relationships.
In your author’s note, you write: “Though one of the underlying themes of Battle Scars is the relationship between Henry and Stephan, I do not refer to the question of King Richard’s homosexuality.” When I saw blurbs about your book my question was simply: Why did you choose homosexual heroes in an age where homosexuality was viewed as far more damning (literally) than fornication and adultery etc.? It certainly was not "accepted" and viewed as normal! Particularly, why the homosexual angle now that historians have debunked inference, popular 50 years ago, about Richard I being homosexual?
Let me start with your last question first. I’d read many articles, primary sources, and biographies of Richard, and agree that evidence cited previously was circumspect. Because Men of the Cross features a gay main character, I mentioned the accusations about Richard to show I’d done my research and because some readers may only have a movie like The Lion in Winter for reference.
Numerous scholars note that attitudes about and punishment for homosexuality varied tremendously despite the stance of the Church in the 12th century. (I provide more background on the topic in a recent post here: http://wp.me/p22qZn-Nx.) The two main themes of Men of the Cross are the effects of war on a young knight and the comraderie and friendship, and ultimately love, that develops between two men. The story relates the human angle, recognizing homosexuality as part of the human condition. Certainly, “forbidden” love provides tremendous conflict. I could have written about a “forbidden” male/female relationship - any sex outside of marriage would have been a mortal sin. (And there was plenty of sinning going on given the number of illegimate children born to the nobility and the clergy!) But that story didn’t speak to me. Men of the Cross lets me dive into Henry’s inner turmoil as he questions his beliefs. Stephan readily admits his preference for men, but has never known or expected love. It is self-discovery for both men as their friendship deepens.
Does the book have any homo-erotic scenes?
The novel is not erotica. Men of the Cross is about the relationship, not about the sex. Like many novels, there is sexual tension and attraction. Yes, there are a few sex scenes. I'd call them emotionally charged. A friend called one “steamy.” There are tender and sometimes passionate touches, kisses, and a sense of intimacy and sensuality without being too graphic. I am a big believer in fade-to-black. The readers’ imagination can fill in the details.
Do you have a favorite scene from Men of the Cross? Which one & why?
Henry is profoundly affected when he witnesses the execution of 2,700 prisoners in Acre, one of the ugly blemishes of Richard the Lionheart’s history. After the crusaders fight off Saladin’s troops, Henry disappears. Stephan finds him bruised and bloodied at the waterfront. The scene shows Henry’s frailty and Stephan’s compassion, and to me, it is one of the most emotional scenes in the novel. Henry’s innocence lost. Stephan's helplessness.
Your book blurb mentions the ‘seeds of a new Robin Hood legend.’ Seeds?
Men of the Cross includes an origin story for Robin Hood - barely. I introduce a knight named Robin who is extraordinarily skilled with bow, and who left a girl back home named Marian. Allan and Little John are minor characters, young teenaged camp-followers, who are taken under the knights’ wings. I hope the reader sees how their lives and actions move them towards that ‘rob from the rich, give to the poor’ attitude, especially as their story arcs are developed further in Book 2. But don’t expect to see them outlawed and living in the greenwood at the end of Book 2.
What part of novel writing do you enjoy the most?
I love to imagine being in far away places and times, trying to visualize what my characters see, think, and feel. I love when a character surprises me, and takes me down a path I wasn’t expecting. Seeing words added to the blank page (or screen) is an exhilarating feeling, but hearing a chuckle or seeing that I tugged a heartstring when I share my work with my writing group and other readers is priceless.