Wednesday, December 26, 2012

GUEST POST: David Pilling on "The White Hawk"

Today I welcome David Pilling to my blog, to tell us about his historical novel about a fascinating chapter in the Wars of the Roses, "The White Hawk".

A Bolton, a Bolton! The White Hawk!

"A Bolton, a Bolton! The White Hawk! God for Lancaster and Saint George!" 

England, 1459: the kingdom stands divided and on the brink of civil war. The factions of Lancaster and York vie for control of the King, while their armies stand poised, ready to tear each other to pieces. 

The White Hawk follows the fortunes of a family of Lancastrian loyalists, the Boltons, as they attempt to survive and prosper in this world of brutal warfare and shifting alliances. Surrounded by enemies, their loyalties will be tested to the limit in a series of bloody battles and savage twists of fate.

This period, with its murderous dynastic feuding between the rival Houses of York and Lancaster, is perhaps the most fascinating of the entire medieval period in England. Having lost the Hundred Years War, the English nobility turned on each other in a bitter struggle for the crown, resulting in a spate of beheadings, battles, murders and Gangland-style politics that lasted some thirty years.

Apart from the savage doings of aristocrats, the wars affected people on the lower rungs of society. One minor gentry family in particular, the Pastons of Norfolk, suffered greatly in their attempts to survive and thrive in the feral environment of the late 15th century. They left an invaluable chronicle in their archive of family correspondence, the famous Paston Letters.

The letters provide us with a snapshot of the trials endured by middle-ranking families like the Pastons, and of the measures they took to defend their property from greedy neighbours. One such extract is a frantic plea from the matriarch of the clan, Margaret Paston, begging her son John to return from London:

"I greet you well, letting you know that your brother and his fellowship stand in great jeopardy at Caister... Daubney and Berney are dead and others badly hurt, and gunpowder and arrows are lacking. The place is badly broken down by the guns of the other party, so that unless they have hasty help, they are likely to lose both their lives and the place, which will be the greatest rebuke to you that ever came to any gentleman. For every man in this country marvels greatly that you suffer them to be for so long in great jeopardy without help or other remedy..."

The Paston Letters, together with my general fascination for the era, were the inspiration for The White Hawk. Planned as a series of three novels, TWH will follow the fortunes of a fictional Staffordshire family, the Boltons, from the beginning to the very end of The Wars of the Roses. Unquenchably loyal to the House of Lancaster, their loyalty will have dire consequences for them as law and order breaks down and the kingdom slides into civil war. The ‘white hawk’ of the title is the sigil of the Boltons, and will fly over many a blood-stained battlefield.
   In the following excerpt, Mary Bolton is forced to defend the family home against a private army:

Someone screamed outside. Tanner ran to drop the heavy bar across the door, but was too slow, and a big soldier wearing the silver star of Ramage on his chest burst in. His face was streaked with gore and dust, and the sword in his hand wet with blood. 
Tanner, the poor fool, grabbed a pole-axe from a rack and threw himself at the soldier, who side-stepped and plunged his sword into the steward’s swollen guts. Tanner fell, squealing like a stuck pig as his entrails slid out of the great hole in his belly.
 By now I had got the match lit, and lifted the gun to sight carefully along the barrel, as Hodson had taught me. I pulled the trigger, there was a bang and a flash, a terrible stink of burning powder in my nostrils, the gun jerked in my hands, and the shot flew straight and true and hit the soldier on the temple, cracking his skull and taking off the top of his head. His face wore a surprised expression as he flew backwards, almost into the arms of his mates who piled through the door in his wake. 
Martin uttered a shrill yell, drew his little knife and ran at the dying man to stab at him as he lay twitching on the flagstones. One of the soldiers caught the boy’s wrist and picked him up by his neck. 
“I’ve caught a rabbit, lads!” he brayed. “Shall we skin and eat him, or sell him at Lichfield market?”
The idiot paid me no heed, which was his undoing as I rushed at him, wielding my gun like a club, and smote him across the jaw with the butt. He fell away, spitting blood and teeth, and dropped Martin to the floor. I took my brother’s hand and turned to flee, God knows where, but strong arms seized and held me fast…

If all this whets your appetite, then please check out the paperback and Kindle versions of Book One below...

Friday, December 21, 2012

The End of the World & Mother Shipton

"The world to an end shall come, in eighteen hundred and eighty-one."

That prediction made people across England panic, sleeping outside and praying for hours in church. The source of the prophecy was Mother Shipton, the Tudor-era seer and witch. Or was it? How much of her life is fact and how much fiction?

I dug into the shadowy life of Mother Shipton and made some surprising discoveries...

Monday, December 10, 2012

When January 1st Wasn't the First of the Year

Welcome! I am very excited to be part of the first Historical Holiday Blog Hop! Thank you, Amy @ Passages to the Past for hosting this exciting event.

For my giveaway, I'm offering my debut novel, The Crown. It's a historical thriller about a 16th century Catholic novice who must search for a mystical object hidden in her priory to save her father's life. The Crown is on sale in North America, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Brazil, and has sold to five other countries, most recently Russia. 

I can send my novel anywhere in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. 

Here is the hot-off-the-presses cover from my English publisher, Orion, for the paperback:

And here is the paperback for sale in North America:

Please leave a comment after my article if you'd like a free book, along with your email address so I can contact you. thanks!

And blog post on a fascinating fact from history:

When January 1st Wasn't the First of the Year

This is the time of the year to buy a big beautiful wall calendar. It always feels good to greet the new year by unfolding the month of January. The 1st day of the 1st month--the beginning of what is to come. 
         But strange as it may seem, January 1st did not always signal the beginning of a new calendar year. Until 1752, the two were separate things in England and its colonies. Until that point, people began each calendar year on March 25, which was Annunciation Day—or Lady Day. This was the day the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to deliver the news that she had conceived and would give birth to Jesus in nine months.
It took an 18th century act of Parliament for England to officially begin each new calendar year on January 1st. The centuries of discrepancy cause lots of headaches for historians and genealogists. There’s no question that it’s strange, not least because England lagged behind much of the rest of Western Europe. Why did this Protestant nation cling to Annunciation Day—by its very definition a day revolving around the Virgin—as the time to change the calendar when most Catholic countries had already shifted to January 1st in the 16th century or 17th century?

         The reason for the January 1st controversy has a lot to do with England’s refusal to take orders from a pope after Henry VIII’s break from Rome in the 1530s. It was Pope Gregory XIII who replaced Julius Caesar’s calendar, devised in 45 BC, with a new one in 1582—and it’s the Gregorian calendar we all use today.  Reform was unquestionably needed. There were too many days in the year; the equinoxes were out of whack; the Julian calendar had strayed 10 days from the solar calendar.
         Among other things, the pope’s new calendar established that each calendar year begin on January 1st. Once it was issued, Italy, Spain and Portugal instantly adopted the Gregorian calendar, followed by France and the other Catholic countries of Europe. But England, Germany and the Netherlands refused. So for centuries, there were two calendars in Western Europe.

         The first step to understanding this furor is to realize that Pope Gregory XIII was not simply someone who cared about calendars. Born in Bologna as Ugo Buoncompagno, he was a transitional pope. Certainly not as venal and corrupt as the Borgias a century earlier, he was a gifted teacher and administrative talent who nonetheless had an illegitimate son before marrying and really liked to spend money.
          Once he became Gregory XIII, he spent huge sums on not only Catholic colleges but also displays such as the Gregorian Chapel in St. Peter’s. To pay for all this, he resorted to papal confiscation. Most relevant to our story, he supported the overthrow of Henry VIII’s Protestant daughter, Elizabeth I. Gregory’s predecessor, Pope Pius V, had already excommunicated Elizabeth and declared her a usurper in 1570. During his papal office, Gregory put intense pressure on the Spanish king, Philip II, to invade and dethrone England’s queen. Gregory personally financed an armed force of 800 men to land in Ireland to join a Catholic rebellion against Elizabeth (it fizzled). Moreover, a Jesuit led the papal commission to devise the Gregorian calendar—and the Jesuits were the religious order specifically created to fight the Protestant Reformation. This all fueled Elizabethan England’s refusal to accept anything that originated in the Vatican.
         The fierce clashes between Catholic and Protestant in the 16th century are the tumultuous background of my historical thrillers. The heroine of my debut novel, The Crown, is a novice in the Dominican Order at Dartford Priory, outside London. But it’s not just the Christian splintering in early modern Europe that fascinates me. I also love studying what came long before the Renaissance.
         Last October, as Halloween approached, I researched the roots of the holiday’s celebration in Tudor England and made some discoveries. I learned that the roots of Halloween reach back to the Dark Ages Celtic festival of Samhain (“summer’s end”), when people lit bonfires and put on costumes to scare away the spirits of the unfriendly dead. All-Hallows-Even, which was shortened to “Halloween” in the 16th century, was a complex blend of Celtic and Catholic customs. After all, the holiday was the run-up to All Saints’ Day on November 1st, an occasion to venerate all the Catholic martyrs. Not surprisingly, the Protestant Reformers took a dim view of Halloween, but its popularity was so great that they were unable to stamp it out.
         My blog post on Halloween ( stirred up so much attention that it made me want to keep reading about the distant and complex roots of what we celebrate today.
         I began thinking about the origins of Christmas and New Year’s Day the morning of December 20th, when I stood outside my apartment building with my son, waiting for his school bus to arrive. Although it was 7:15 a.m., dawn had barely broken; the Christmas lights that the superintendent had strung over the bushes glowed yellow in the purplish-gray light. A hazy fullness hung in the air—and it seemed to carry a strange potency. Almost like something magical. I had no idea as I stood there that what I sensed would connect to January 1st and the fascinating furor over when to begin the calendar year.

         I snapped a photo and posted it on my Facebook page, along with sharing a description of the strange feeling all around me. A high school friend, D.K. Carlson, offered an explanation: “The solstice is almost here.” It made me shiver to think it was the power of the winter solstice that touched me that morning: the approach of the shortest day of the year, the moment when the earth is in a point of its orbit farthest away from the sun. I find it very interesting that Julius Caesar established December 25th as the date of the winter solstice. It was—you guessed it—Pope Gregory XIII who made the adjustment to December 21st.
         Long before the time of Julius Caesar, man honored the solstice. Bronze Age archaeologists have uncovered symbols and signs that reveal awareness of the shortest day of the year. The monuments of Stonehenge and Newgrange in Ireland are believed to have solstice alignments. In 2000 BC, people may have gathered at Stonehenge in mid-December to pray for the sun to return again, the source of all life.

         Again and again, in many societies and religions, the solstice has great meaning. For the Druids, it was Alban Arthuan, the Light of Winter. As part of the celebration, priests cut the mistletoe that grew on winter oaks and blessed it. Germanic pagans launched the tradition of burning the Yule log and decorating a home with clippings of evergreen trees.
         In Rome, not surprisingly, the celebrations became more debauched. Saturnalia, which took place in mid-December, ran the gamut from heavy drinking to gambling to reversing society norms, with masters waiting on slaves. Lighting candles was very important. So was the tradition of children going house to house, offering small gifts, such as wrapped fruit, in exchange for other tokens. 
Saturnalia was so popular that not even the Fall of Rome could kill it. It morphed into the Feast of Fools, celebrated from the Fifth Century until the Renaissance in much of Western Europe on January 1st. The servants became the masters, with a lower-echelon “Lord of Misrule” chosen to preside over all drunken festivities beginning in late December and concluding on the first of January.  
         Not surprisingly, the early Catholic Church did not look kindly on the parties--stimulated by the winter solstice--that marked January 1st. The church leaders didn’t want something as important as beginning a new year to take place on that same day. In 567 AD, a Council of Tours decreed that the first of January was abolished and the blameless Annunciation Day was chosen. It took a while for this to be accepted, but by medieval times, people in England looked on March 25th as the beginning of the year. And this tradition stuck through the Plantagenets, the Tudors, the Stuarts, and into the time of the Hanoverians.

         Until finally, in 1752, in the reign of George II, England—and its colonies in the Americas—made the change, and January 1st was officially deemed the beginning of the year.


In my historical thrillers—The Crown, out in 10 countries, and The Chalice, coming out in March 2013—I delve into all sorts of intriguing mysteries of English history. So if you'd like to win a giveaway of the signed paperback of The Crown, leave a comment with your email address below. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Guerrilla Tactics: Interview With Author & Screenwriter Max Adams

By Nancy Bilyeau

In the middle of attempting to write my first screenplay, I bought a paperback called The Screenwriter's Survival Guide: Or, Guerrilla Meeting Tactics and Other Acts of War, by Max Adams. It was a fast, smart read, very funny, with an insider's wisdom about how to get off the ground as a screenwriter.

Max, I learned, had won the two hottest screenwriting contests—the Nicholl Fellowship and Austin Film Festival—in the same year, sold a spec script for real money that made it onto the big screen, and scored a whole bunch of studio assignments. She also taught writing, and so when I saw her name in the faculty list for Gotham Writer's Workshop online, I jumped. 

Max has taught me an incredible amount on writing visually, creating characters and plotting. Before I took a swerve into fiction, I got pretty far with the Nicholl myself, reaching semi-finalist twice, and getting some producers to read my scripts. Who knows? Someday one of those stories could be at a movie screen near you.

Now Max is back with an updated version of her book called The New Screenwriter's Survival Guide. This is not one of those cases where the author wrote a few new paragraphs for the Introduction. Max overhauled her book, making it even more useful and on target. Chapters range from "What You Really Get Paid" to "Writer Speak Versus Mogul Speak."

I chased her down--no easy feat--and persuaded her to submit to an interview on her new book. I've met Max in person as well as participated in her invite-only online workshops, and, well, Max has a conversational style like no other, one I wanted the blogosphere to experience. As you can see from this photo, she's not shy. What you can't see is she swears by killer shoes.

Max Adams. Photo by Chesher Cat at

Max, what made you decide to update your 2001 book The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide?

The book was out of print, so getting harder to find.  That is one big reason.  And, information in the book was out of date.  When I wrote it, we still did things like fax queries in, and that is a thing of the past, and I had to have an AOL account because the majority of people in Hollywood savvy enough to have email accounts were only on AOL and didn’t know you could have an email address that ended in anything other than  Submissions were different, almost all paper – now they’re almost all PDF. A lot has changed so it was time to rewrite the book including new information that pertains to today.

Your book’s existence takes the position that it IS possible to survive as a screenwriter. There’s such pessimism out there about beating the odds and becoming a working writer for film and television. Or has there always been this pessimism and now there are just more online discussion boards?

I have not seen a change in the “what are the odds” discussions and attitudes.  I just think they are  not valid.  It doesn’t do any good to think about odds in this business.  Are the odds bad?  Sure.  Who cares?  If this is what you want and need to do, you say “Screw the odds” and you go for it.  Someone has to break in.  If no one new ever broke in, screenwriters would have died out a long time ago.  And if someone has to break in, that someone might as well be you.  That is really the attitude you need to hang on to and the hell with the odds.

What has changed for the better in the life of the working screenwriter since 2001?

Things have gone up and down a lot.  I think three things which are solid pluses are, Chris Nolan came out with Inception and blew the roof off the box office.  And that was a very smart, complex plot film.  Prior to that, the consensus in Hollywood offices was, Dumb down the plot, make it easy to understand.  And after Inception, everyone sat up and said, Wait a minute, a smart complex plot film just ripped the roof off the box office, maybe we should re-evaluate?  So smarter complex scripts stand a better chance of consideration these days.  And we can thank Chris Nolan for breaking the ground there. 

Another plus is the Twilight franchise.  While Twilight may not be everyone’s cup of tea, one myth it dispelled for good is “there is no teen girl audience.”  There has always been a teen girl audience, you can see that just watching old Beatles clips, and you could see it when Titanic came out, but people acted like Titanic was a fluke. Now, you kind of cannot miss the fact there is a huge teen girl audience so, if you write films that appeal to that audience, you are a lot less likely to hit the “there is no teen girl audience” wall in Hollywood.  Yes there is, and no one can ignore it now. 

Another plus is, it is getting less and less expensive to make films, so if you have aspirations of making your own films, in addition to writing them?  You can literally go shoot on HD and edit the film on your computer at home.  We couldn’t do that when I was in film school, just making a five minute student short was almost financially impossible because of the film and film development costs.  Those are a thing of the past, and even equipment is much more affordable now.  So for independent writers who want to go guerrilla filmmaker?  That is a lot easier to do now.

What has changed for the worst?

Television staffs have shrunk and film studios have become more corporate and about re-working “done” storylines and material and less about new material and innovative stories.  Studio production slates are smaller, so, even if you sell a script, seeing the movie get made is less likely.  This tends to go in cycles however, studios will condense and become more and more about franchises and rehashing old material, then an independent will come along that is highly innovative and fresh and will blow the roof off the box office and the studios will expand a little again.  It is a self perpetuating cycle.

You are a fabulous writing teacher. Do you think there is such a thing as innate storytelling talent? Or can some writers move the needle from zero to 60 and make amazing careers for themselves?

Thank you.  I think there is innate story telling talent.  I think it comes in different forms too.  I have met brilliant novelists who could not write “script” to save their lives.  They just couldn’t, somehow their brains were not wired to write for the screen.  And yet they were brilliant award winning novelists.  So, some people get one gift, others get another, and the truly lucky ones are blessed across many mediums and can switch from form to form.

I’m also going to say, Some people just are not blessed with the gift.  People will hate me for saying that.  But craft can only help you IF you can tell a story in the first place.  And some people can’t.  That should be okay with people.  Everyone gets some people are cut out to be basketball players, and some people are not.  But people get angry if you say, Some people are cut out to be story tellers and others are not.  The thing is, no matter how much I want to be a star basketball player?  It is just not going to happen.  And I am okay with that, I get it.  I got another gift, I got the writing gift.  It is a fair trade.  So I would say, find your gift and follow it, and if that gift is not writing?  You will find you have another. 

Your book debunks some of the persistent myths about how to succeed as a screenwriter. Such as that you need an agent to make a career breakthrough. Why do you think aspiring screenwriters are so obsessed with finding an agent?

Everyone is obsessed with finding an agent because that is a good way to open doors.  There is also this idea that having an agent makes everything easier and means your career is set.  It does make everything easier.  People stop saying, “No unsolicited submissions” and slamming the phone down on you.  Agents can just stroll your material through doors you have to kill yourself to break down on your own, starting out.  But an agent doesn’t guarantee sales, a career, or even meetings.  Some agents will just park you in a stable and let your career rot, so even with an agent, you have to be out there making contacts and connections and looking for the work. 

It also looks, in the trades, often like an agent made a big break sale for an up and comer just breaking in when, in fact, the agent didn’t make that breakthrough sale.  The writer was beating down doors and getting material out there alone, because agents wouldn’t rep an unknown writer, then the writer made a big splashy hit with a spec sale and an agent picked the writer up to negotiate the deal the writer found in the first place.  So, you don’t necessarily need an agent to make that break through sale.  To negotiate it for you?  Sure.  But lots of times, agents won’t even read material unless you already have that deal on the table so be less worried about agents, and more worried about producers.  Producers are the people most likely to bring a new writer over the wall and set up that first deal.

You are extremely helpful in your book and your workshop on how to pitch to producers, how to talk in meetings. Such as “Don’t talk about theme.” How often do you think writers blow it in the meetings?

That depends on whether you are talking about veteran writers, fledgling writers who just broke in, or untried baby writers just writing the first script and trying to figure out how to pitch.  The baby writers?  99% of the time, because they just don’t have experience or know what the hell they are doing.  Fledgling writers?  Till they gain experience and confidence, probably 50% of the time, because even though they have more practice, they probably still haven’t figured out what the studio suits need in a pitch to sell the pitch upstairs.  Veteran writers? Maybe 1% to 2% of the time.  These are hardened veterans, they know what has to be there, they know how to pitch, they’ve been in the trenches and have a lot of practice.  Once in a rare while they will have a bad day or it will just be a meeting gone wrong, the rest of the time?  They are not going to blow the pitch.

Does anyone sell a spec script with a query letter anymore? What is the best way to get noticed by Hollywood? 

The best way to get noticed is to win one of the big competitions like Nicholl or Sundance or Austin Film Festival.  But those slots are limited.  A lot of people will tell you just write a great script and it will find it’s way to discovery.  But that’s crap.  Lots of great scripts are languishing in drawers because their writers can’t pitch or don’t know how to get read.  (Pitching is a skill in and of itself and one people have to work on, if they don’t have it going in.)  Some people get their material read by writing queries.  Some people get their material read by hitting film events and festivals and pitching to everyone and anyone who will listen till the right person reads the script and it’s a go.  I don’t really know the figures or percentages there on which works better or results in more sales. 

There are not a huge number of working screenwriters. But there are a huge number of screenwriting contests. What should people think about when sending in their scripts to contests, some of which are pricey?

The primary reason to enter a contest is, winning or placing in that contest will get your script read by people who can make a movie – or help you get in with people who can make a movie.  That is foremost, every time you submit to a contest.  How much prestige does winning or placing in this competition get you and will it get your material read? 

Secondary to that is cash prizes, which help pay the bills to give you more time to write, but first and foremost, always, is will a win or placing in this competition get your material in front of people who make movies?

There is a caveat to the above though.  Check the fine print to see if winning gives the contest sponsor an automatic option on your material.  That’s something you usually want to avoid.

Can a screenwriter survive if he or she can’t work well in a team?

TV writers can’t.  They have to be able to work in a room with other writers.  Feature writers can, if they just want to work on their own specs and sell them and avoid the whole collaboration process that comes after a sale.  This also depends on the definition of “work well in a team” though.  People will be told over and over to be a “good team player.”  That has to be defined.  And the definition should not be “be a yes man.”  If you are part of a “team,” you bring a skill set to the team that you have to honor, while working  with that team.  And while you need to respect other people’s skill sets and what they bring to the team too?  There will be times when you know something they don’t, about story or plot, and you need to fight for something in the story or plot.  So, know what you should fight for, know what you can part with, and try to get along with others and it should be okay.  And if you can’t do any of the above?  Maybe you should be a novelist and work in a medium that doesn’t require collaborative working conditions to get the story out there.

You were discovered by Hollywood when you won the two biggest screenwriting contests the same year. What was the most enjoyable part of being the It Girl of film writing?

The best part was I went from pounding on doors asking people to read my material to people pounding on my door asking to read my material.  That is real magic.  That day when the door opens and you don’t have to ask them any more, they are asking you.  It rocked.  Getting a movie made was a pretty hot perk too.


Time to buy the book! Go to

And to find out more about Max's screenwriting classes at her school, The Academy of Film Writing, go to