Stephanie Churchill author of Shades of Awakening

Hello Stephanie. You write in no particular time frame, but the world you have created for your characters has a very real feel to it in terms of history. It’s recognisable as a medieval world, but it’s one of your own imagination. Can you tell us a little more about the world in which your character, the girl, Mêlie, lives, and a bit about her, and what her place in this world is? We know she is a slave, but how did she become to be one?

My series (and my story) is classified as fantasy, but that’s not really a fair or full picture. It’s more historical than fantasy, but the fact that it’s purely fictional – the settings and characters are 100% imagined – makes it fantasy despite there being no magic, creatures, etc. So its perhaps more accurate to say that I write fiction, but that’s not really an acceptable category in marketing. The industry requires a little more nuance than that.

My main area of historical interest is medieval Britain, specifically the end of that era just before the Tudors. My series had two primary inspirations: Disney’s Aladdin meets the Wars of the Roses. The Wars of the Roses might be more evident to those who have read the books, but the Aladdin reference is a longer explanation. I’ll simply refer to another article I wrote to explain what’s behind this reference!

The fictional kingdom in this story is Agrius, a large island nation off the eastern coast of a broader continent. It has a very temperate climate with mountains in the centre of the island. The great plains of the north serve as a sort of “breadbasket” for the island, where the east is the hotbed of the slaving industry. Prille is the major city in the south and the home of Bellsea Palace where the king lives.

I rooted the politics of Agrius in a dynastic war, much like the Houses of York and Lancaster in England. Going back several generations from the setting of the story takes us to King Ancin. He was an impatient man, brooding and dangerous. His reign was defined by war, for he spent most of it away from Agrius, fighting his enemies. As a result, there was little opportunity to produce an heir. He had other children, but none legitimate. The eldest of these was named Sajen, born to Ela, daughter of one of Ancin’s nobles on the north coast. Ancin’s wife and queen, Thyra, however, failed to provide him with a legitimate son.

One day Thyra discovered she was with child, and Agrius celebrated the news. Everything progressed as it should, but as had always been the poor woman’s fate, her good fortune turned against her. Not long after she gave birth to Vitus, the legitimate heir to the throne of Agrius, King Ancin died. No one expected it, and chaos erupted in Agrius. Someone needed to wear the crown, and most people supported Vitus as prescribed by law. But because he was just a babe, he couldn’t act for himself. Seeing his opportunity, Sajen snatched up his father’s crown.

Not wanting to fight a costly war to dethrone him, most in the kingdom looked the other way during his coronation. Kingdoms ruled by a queen regent raising an infant king are insecure ones. In the end, Thyra fled, fearing for Vitus’ life, knowing he would be a threat to Sajen’s security. She remained obscure, and Vitus stayed alive. The conflict between the heirs of Sajen and Vitus result in the major complications of my series.

It was within this world of dynastic struggle that slavery existed and had for generations. I never really explore in the books where it came from or how it ended up in Agrius. Slavery functioned in Agrius as a generation system. If you were born to a slave, you became a slave. And yet, there was hope. A slave could purchase his or her own freedom (or could have it purchased by someone else). In Anscher’s case, he was a freeman, and he hoped to purchase Mêlie’s freedom.

It seems for a young slave girl, the world is very scary, and often dangerous. It struck me that Mêlie must have thought she had died and gone to heaven when Anscher comes along and wants to marry her.

As he walked away, the full moon broke out from behind the heavy clouds, and a silvery light washed over Anscher’s retreating figure. She knew then that she would wed him.’ 

She must have seen this as a ray of hope that at last her way out of being a slave would be to become a freeman’s wife. It really touched me because you get a terrible sense of gloom of what it must have been like to have no way out of the misery of one’s life. 

Mêlie is a strong girl, despite her slight, malnourished form. Hardship was a way of life for her, and she knew little more than misery. Death surrounded her. She’d lost her elder brother, and soon other members of her family were to follow. Anscher enters her life at a pivotal point, when things could have gone badly for her. Not only was she a slave, but she was also a woman. And despite her strength, she still must play the hand she’s given as she navigates the brutal world she inhabits. Being a woman and a slave implied that men could treat her however they liked; as chattel or a commodity to be used for pleasure and leisure. So when Anscher saves her, she is wary of him at first. She has no reason to believe he is unlike any other man she encounters. But when he proves to be different, reveals his integrity instead, she can’t believe her good fortune. That ray of sunshine brightens her otherwise gloomy world, and she goes about her days from thereon with light steps. She’s been given hope.

I believe the tale is a side-story from your Crowns of Destiny series about two royal sisters and a prince who becomes a king. Can you tell the reader how the idea of slavery fits into that world? And how, when the idea of a ghost anthology was first thought of, what inspired you to write Mêlie into the story?

Slavery provides much of the driving narrative tension in my second novel, The King’s Daughter. It’s a societal problem that my main characters must wrestle with, and like so many societal problems, the answer is vastly complex. We always want simple, straightforward answers to our society’s ills, but unfortunately simple answers aren’t realistic. My characters face the question of ridding their kingdom of a moral evil when that evil also underpins the economic foundation of their world. How do you go about getting things onto a better moral footing without collapsing everything else, creating even bigger problems?

When we as authors decided to write this anthology, I knew I wanted to write my story centred at one of my favourite locations from The King’s Furies — Croilton Castle in the Honor of Cilgaron on the east coast of Agrius (which was inspired by Raglan Castle). The lord of that castle is not a particularly nice man. As a starting point for my story, I asked myself, “What happened at Croilton when all the slaves were freed?” Lyseby, the city nearest the castle, is Agrius’ center of slaving. Lyseby, as my characters would know it, would witness an enormous and cataclysmic change. How would Lord Cilgaron react? Would he play nicely with the edict of his king and queen?

Artists impression of the gardens in their heyday about 1620 by Ivan Lapper 2003 Raglan Castle

I decided that no, he would not. And thus, my short story was born. What would it have been like to be a slave living and working at the seat of Lord Cilgaron’s slaving empire? And how could I make it a ghost story? The answer seemed pretty obvious to me.

We see the story wholly through the eyes of Mêlie, the slave girl. She is such a tragic character. She goes through so much, losing her friends, her lover who seems to have turned against her. Ghost stories are often tragic but is this how you intended to portray her, as a tragic femme fatale almost? 

First, I have to explain that one of my all-time favourite novels is Jane Eyre. To say I love tragedies is kind of an understatement. So yes, of course I intentionally set out to write her in that way. Digging into pain gives authors almost immediate access to a reader’s heart, and it’s difficult not to want to capitalise on that instant connection. When you write about pain, you know you stand on common ground with humanity, for who among us has never experienced pain? Most of the time, we see our characters rise above the pain and tragedy of their story, overcoming the obstacles. And there is certainly a lot of satisfaction in that. But this was a ghost story anthology, and I needed to find a different way to get my character through the pain, ending it on a sweet, if sad, note.

I absolutely loved the Crowns of Destiny series and was sorry when the last book, The King’s Furies, finished. It was one of the best pieces of literature I’d read for some time. Your writing style, your storytelling and the characters, not to mention the world-building, it was superb. I’d love to read more about Casmir and Irisa. You gave a little taster at the end of the King’s Furies for what happens to them. However, it would be lovely to read more books in the series. I’d love to see more about the peoples of Croilton and what happens to them too. What are the chances of that happening?

Writing about Casmir and Irisa, along with other family members in my three books, was one of the biggest and most surprising delights in my writing. Casmir was one of those characters that dominated his scenes. I’d never intended to give him his own book, but he muscled his way in, and I could not deny him. He turned into my favourite character. (Can authors admit this without making their other “children” extraordinarily irate with them?) Leaving him to begin work on my fantasy series inspired by Sargon of Akkad and ancient Mesopotamia was very difficult. I was actually stuck in my writing for so long because I wasn’t clicking with my new characters in the same way I clicked with Casmir!

However, because I loved the world and setting, the characters and stories of the Crowns of Destiny series so much, I couldn’t leave them completely. I knew that Casmir and Irisa’s time in the spotlight was done, but I didn’t leave myself without options. As I wrote the ending of The King’s Furies, I intentionally wrote an ending that would allow me to pursue these characters in a spinoff series. I began the first book in the series before setting it aside to begin work on what is now my current work-in-progress. I haven’t abandoned it though. I do fully intend to get back to it after I finish my current trilogy. It won’t feature Casmir, but he will definitely make appearances.

Thank you, Stephanie for visiting my blog and providing us with some great answers!

It was my pleasure! You asked some great questions. Thanks for having me! Can I have some cake now?

About Stephanie

Being first and foremost a lover of history, Stephanie’s writing draws on her knowledge of history even while set in purely fictional places existing only in her imagination. Inspired by classic literature, epic fantasy, as well as the historical fiction of authors like Sharon Kay Penman, Anya Seton, and Bernard Cornwell, Stephanie’s books are filled with action and romance, loyalty and betrayal. Her writing takes on a cadence that is sometimes literary, sometimes genre fiction, relying on deeply drawn and complex characters while exploring the subtleties of imperfect people living in a gritty, sometimes dark world. Her unique blend of non-magical fantasy fiction inspired by genuine history ensures that her books are sure to please of historical fiction and epic fantasy literature alike.

Stephanie grew up in the Lincoln, Nebraska. After graduating college, she worked as an international trade and antitrust paralegal in Washington, D.C. She now lives with her husband, their two children, and two dogs in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Purchase her books here

Find Stephanie:

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And don’t forget Sharon Bennett Connolly is back tomorrow hosting Samantha Wilcoxson for our final hop, but if you’ve missed any of the stops along the way, below is a schedule so you can click on the links and catch up with them all!#

Thanks for joining us!

October 3rd Sharon Bennett Connolly : History the Interesting bits
October 4th : Judith Arnopp
October 5th: D. Apple
October 6th: K.S. Barton
October 7th Paula Lofting: 1066: The Road to Hastings and Other Stories
October 8th Samantha Wilcoxson: https://samanthawilcoxson.blogspot.com/
October 11th Simon Turney
October 12th Lynn Bryant: Blogging With Labradors
October 13th Jennifer C Wilson: Historical Fiction With Spirit
https://jennifercwilsonwriter.wordpress.com/blog/
October 14th: Stephanie Churchill

October 15th Sharon Bennett Connolly: History the Interesting Bits

Historical Writers Jolablokaflod

PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS GIVEAWAY IS NO LONGER VALID

So the blog hoppers from the Historical Writers Forum have come together this December joined by the spirit of the Icelandic tradition of giving books away. So now its my turn and here is a little about me and my books.

You can see the past and future blog posts if you follow this link

I am Paula Lofting and by day I am a psyche nurse and in my spare time I like to write and blog about a particular century that totally fascinates and intrigues me. I love all things historical but my period of interest is the eleventh century, in particular the epoch that saw the tide turn for the early pre-Norman Conquest English. I am also a re-enactor of what is notably referred to the Dark Ages which although a delightful hobby, I take as seriously as I can! My one biggest insistence that I carry into my books and writings is that I aim to be as accurate as I possibly can both in facts and the world in which my characters inhabit and whilst I make it my mission to ensure the narrative of the period is as factual as possible, I want my readers to feel as immersed in eleventh century England as they can be from a thousand years away.

Some years ago, but later in my life, I decided, at a time when I had gone through a lot of difficulties, that I could sit back on my laurels and wallow in my misery, or I could pick myself up and make a life for myself that was far less ordinary. I would not wait for fortune to find me, I would make of my life what I could and I went to college, then to university to study mental health nursing, and it was at this time that I rekindled my love of reading and writing, which had always been my biggest love.

To cut a long story short, and not to be boring you with drawn out details, I became inspired by a re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings and two books. One was written by Ms Helen Hollick called Harold the King, the other was by famous historian, David Howarth. Hollick’s book gave ne the impetus to write about this period, though not solely about Harold Godwinson, but more focussed of the period as a whole and through the eyes of a semi-fictional character named Wulfhere for whom I have created a narrative of what might have happened to a family caught up in the turmoil of the times. The idea was for the reader to get to know them, invest themselves in them emotionally and then hit them with the barbaric conquest that comes to tear their lives apart so they can experience the devastation of what happened to the English people after the invasion.

And so the first book, Sons of the Wolf, was first published with the help of Silverwoods Assisted publishers in 2012, and then I decided I wanted to go it on my own and revised the cover and the contents using my own imprint, Longship Publishing, in 2016 and that was when I published the second book in the series which has since recently been also been revised and streamlined to a less drawn out tome. I did this without changing the structure of the book I might add, The Wolf Banner is still, and will always remain, the same story.

A bit about Sons of the Wolf (book 1) – which is also the name of the series.

The story begins in 1054 as Wulfhere a king’s thegn, ambles home from warring in the north with his righthand man, Esegar. King Edward sits on the throne, content to leave the running of his kingdom in the capable hands of Harold Godwinson,the Earl of Wessex, whilst he enjoys more pleasurable pursuits such as hunting, story-telling, music, and praying.
When Wulfhere’s daughter strikes up an illicit love affair with Edgar, the son of her father’s arch enemy, Helghi, it rekindles an old bloodfeud that threatens to spill over the county. In order to dispel the feud, the Earl of Wessex, orders that Wulfhere’s daughter, Freyda and her lover, Edgar, be betrothed to bring peace between the two families.
But Wulfhere, although he reluctantly agrees, fears that Freyda will suffer at the hands of his enemy and has to find away to extricate himself from the bargain without compromising his honour and loyalty to his Lord Harold.

And so, Wulfhere has to navigate the machinations and intrigues of the court and the hell of the battlefield as well as look out for the enemy at home.

Here is an excerpt from Sons of the Wolf

Wulfhere is alerted to a fire over at the steading of his enemy Helghi and reluctantly takes his men to help them put it out.

Despite his loss of vigour, Wulfhere saw that Helghi fought like a mad boar for his home that night. Everyone in the village capable of hauling a bucket full of water was there, both young and old. Wulfhere suspected, with humour, that the prospect of having their lord as a house guest was enough to inspire the villagers to do their best to save the hall. Helghi was a surly man at the best of times. At his best, even, he was a cruel drunk with a head full of resentment for anyone and anything. He would not make a pleasant guest.

Wulfhere move towards him nervously. In front of him, flames lit up the early morning sky. He paused with some distance between them. He was unsure about the response his presence would provoke, or from any of the others for that matter. So far, there had been a lot of mixed reactions. Some were stunned to see the men of Horstede there; some silently accepted their presence unquestioningly; a few others asked what had alerted them, but none had made any objections. Most likely all were relieved and too busy with the task in hand to concern themselves with their mysterious arrival.

For a moment he stood almost enthralled, as Helghi fought like a mad bull to save his hall from the fire. He summoned up the nerve to approach. Around him was chaos. Men were yelling as they ran from burning houses, salvaging what they could whilst their women chased the livestock here and there to safety. As Wulfhere edged tentatively closer to his neighbour, he was suddenly aware of a woman screaming, somewhere near to the far end of the hall. It was bloodcurdling; he had heard the like before in Dunsinane.

A dishevelled middle-aged woman, her hair uncovered, ran toward him. She grabbed him desperately. “Come help us, good sir,” she cried and then exclaimed, “Oh Lord, save us! What are you doing here, Lord Wulfhere?”

“I and my men have come to aid you,” he reassured her gently.

“Then help my lady save her child!” the woman gasped.

He followed her as she ran around the side of the hall to where a group of women were restraining a younger woman he knew to be Mildrith, wife of Helghi. She was on her knees in the grass, screaming as her women prevented her from running into the burning hut.

“My baby!” she screeched, her hands clawing her face and hair. Every time she made to break free, they held on to her fast, sobbing and begging her to cease struggling. Looking at the hut, Wulfhere assumed that some embers from the byre, fuelled by the wind, had fallen onto the roof of the building and set it aflame.

“Why did I think it would be safe to leave her in there?” Mildrith was crying. Her shoulder-length hair was matted, her face tear-streaked and dusty. “I should have known that the hut was too close to the hall.”

Wulfhere shook his head and looked at the distraught women. He knew instantly that he had to do something. If he walked away and did nothing, he would never forgive himself for leaving a child to burn. “Get me a blanket or something doused in water,” he shouted at the woman who had brought him there. “Your cloak will do!”

The woman nodded and dashed off to do his bidding. The other women looked at him, their mouths dropped open in surprise as they recognised him. Wulfhere reassured Helghi’s hysterical wife that he would get her baby for her. He grabbed her shoulders, put his face close to hers and spoke earnestly to her. She seemed to look right through him and Wulfhere realised there was great fear for her child. He glanced round at the hut and saw why. The fire had taken hold with a firm grip, and the chances of the building collapsing in on him were ominously high. Just then, the woman returned with the cloak doused in water, and he threw it over his head ready to enter the burning hut. For a moment, he marvelled that only two nights ago, he’d returned home after surviving a bloody battle with the Scots; now, here he was, risking his life to save the child of a man whose hatred for him rivalled any enemy he had ever met on the battlefield.

He said a quick Paternoster, and gazing upwards, added, “I hope you reserve a nice comfortable seat for me up there, oh Lord!” Then he kicked the door of the hut, which came away easily, and entered, gingerly.

The intensity of the heat was overpowering. His eyes streamed and stung with the smoke. He was coughing and spluttering and smoke-blind, fearing he could not go in but when he heard a baby’s whimpering, he knew he could not give up.

Flames burned on the front right side of the hut. This was the area of the little building that was nearest the hall. As he tried his best to focus, he heard the child choking from a corner of the hut somewhere behind the flames. He had to get there quickly, for the flames were growing and if she wasn’t burned to death, the smoke would fill her lungs and kill her. As he peered tentatively from underneath the protection of the cloak, he could just about see her outline; the baby was bouncing in fear, and his heart lurched. She was a little thing of no more than a year or so, same age as his Drusilda. She was pressing herself against the wall. Her piercing wails broke his heart as she cried out frantically in her cot. Within seconds, the flames had moved closer to her. Through the smoke, he tried to see another way round. Above was a loft, the floor of which had just started to burn. He hoped that the timbered base would hold out until he could get to her, for he knew they would be done for if it came down. He thought about running back out for water, but the thatch on the roof in the middle was beginning to burn and he knew there was no time.

“Stay with me, God, and help me,” he prayed. “Lord, if you let me live today, I promise to do more good deeds.” He crossed himself, kissed the little iron crucifix that hung about his neck, and lunged forward.

His outstretched hands felt for her, but he could barely see because of the flames and the smoke. Behind him, he heard something crackle and collapse, and he tried not to think of it. What mattered most at that moment was what was before him. He managed to grab the screaming infant and tucked her under his right arm. With his free hand, he drew the cloak closely over them both. When he turned to get out, he saw that the way was now blocked by the blazing thatched roof which had collapsed into the interior. He felt the heat searing toward them and the smell of burning oak was almost suffocating.  The little girl clung to him, smothered against his heart, whimpering with terror. He had to find a way to get her out.

And here are some reviews to wet your appetite!!

5.0 out of 5 stars Sons of the Wolf Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 20 June 2013Verified Purchase

Paula Lofting transports us back to 1054 England, to a time of political upheavel and warrior kings, religious interference and hero’s. We are introduced to the family of Wulfere, Thegn of Harold Godwineson and father of six. Through this inperfect but loyal subject, we are shown a colourful and vivid picture of life in medieval England, from struggling family life at Horstede to the clash of the political heavyweights of ancient europe. We find wonderfully real characters and family members who feel like our own, to the giants of european history both woven into a rich and vibrant story. With a deep knowledge of the time, Paula leaves no stone unturned, you can feel the atmosphere and smell the changing seasons. Clever sub plots intwined with historical knowledge and a perfectly timed splash of old English help to paint a picture thats trully believable. Having already enjoyed this book twice i find myself drawn to a third adventure whilst writing this, if only to catch up with Wulfere,s twins. i cant wait for the second installment in the series to check what mischief and mayhem Wulfric and Wulfwin will cause, bravo Paula a real gem and the nicest feeling cover i’ve ever held.

5.0 out of 5 stars A pleasure to read…

Showing a comprehensive knowledge of pre conquest Britain, Paula Lofting has taken historical fiction to a whole new level, skilfully interweaving factual and well recorded events with the fictitious lives and loves the thegn Wulfhere and his family, neighbours and affinity. Wulfhere and his neighbour Helghi were real people who appeared in the records. Although the lives they led is unknown, Ms Lofting’s accounts of the family relationships – the marital problems, the bickering between the children, the tantrums of a teenager in love – are all so clearly described as to show a true understanding of human nature throughout the years. The book is carried smoothly by vividly realistic conversations and wonderfully picturesque descriptions which add greatly to the sense of time and place. The reader feels inside the book with the characters, living and breathing and seeing what they experienced. Ms Lofting’s knowledge of the history of the era is as comprehensive as her knowledge of the early language, yet never does the reader feel as if they are reading a lecture. I liked the personal nature of the story and its focus on Wulfhere and his family and their struggles amidst war and personal feuds. Wulfhere also takes part in actual historical events whilst in service to the King.The characters feel like real people, with complex human emotions.

The book itself is beautifully presented with a wonderfully designed eye catching cover and helpfully includes pronunciation and place names guides, as well as a glossary of unfamiliar terms, which is very helpful.

Sons of the Wolf is the first in a series of novels about the Norman conquest of England. I enjoyed this book very much and found it a delightful read. The wealth of historical detail keeps it from being a lightweight. I look forward to reading the next in the series!”

4.0 out of 5 stars A good read – and real life beats fiction. Reviewed in the United States on 3 August 2013Verified Purchase

“Set in the 11th century, a decade or so before the battle of Hastings, the Sons of the Wolf tells the story of Wulfhere, thegn of Horstede and his family. That Horstede had a thegn named Wulfhere is established fact as per the Domesday Book (a very nice touch in my opinion), but the author makes it very clear that apart from the name and the location, her Wulfhere is a fictional hero, however involved he is in the actual events of his time.

The novel has a substantial amount of cameo characters, most of them based on real people. Harold Godwinson, Edward the Confessor, Gruffyd of Wales – they all make an appearance in Ms Loftings novel, and in general I think the author does a very good job in breathing life into these long dead people. In particular, Ms Lofting has done an excellent job depicting the Godwinson brothers – and their sister, Queen Edith. The historical context is rich and well-described, and I was particularly impressed by the description of the Battle of Hereford – Ms Lofting succeeds in conveying the grime, the blood, the sheer terror of fighting hand to hand.”

 5.0 out of 5 stars Trouble at home and on the battlefieldReviewed in the United States on 11 November 2014Verified Purchase

Sons of the Wolf brings us into the turbulent eleventh century where violence is just a breath away and can come from any direction. Wulfhere, our protagonist and thegn of Harold Godwinson, has recently come back from the Battle of Dunsinane in Scotland when he faces his own battles at home. In a Romeo-and-Juliet-style romance, his daughter Freyda has reawakened a generations-old feud between Wulfhere and his despicable neighbor Helghi. In an attempt to keep the peace, Earl Harold insists that the wayward lovers should marry in order to put the feud to rest. Alas, it is not so easy for Wulfhere and matters go from bad to worse as he watches his family fall apart.

At the same time, we are drawn into the troublesome quarrels between Harold and his siblings, and a new conflict arises with Earl Aelfgar, whose resentment of the Godwinson clan boils over. Aelfgar oversteps himself and is outlawed, which drives him to join forces with Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, King of Wales. Together, these new allies descend on the important border town of Hereford. Once again Wulfhere must fight for Harold, and we see the dreadful battle at Hereford where England’s first attempt at cavalry fighting comes to an inglorious end.

Paula Lofting’s historical narrative is gripping, and she effortlessly pulls the reader into the midst of the action. Her characters are well-defined and compelling, and we come out of the novel with an enhanced understanding of just how destructive a bitter feud can be.

So I hope you will avail yourself of a free download of Sons of the Wolf book 1 I can guarantee that you will be in for a real historical ride! And if you are hooked, I am giving away a paperback edition of The Wolf Banner anywhere in the UK all you have to do is leave a comment here on the blog or on the post on our Facebook Blog hopper’s page

And if you enjoy both books, coming soon, the third in the series is coming soon in the new year!