Sunday, June 29, 2014

Indentured servants - the backbone of the colonies (guest post by Anna Belfrage)

Revenge & Retribution is the sixth book in Anna Belfrage's time slip series featuring time traveller Alexandra Lind and her seventeenth century husband, Matthew Graham.  The series began in Scotland, but by now has arrived in the New World, with new adventures ahead for Alex and Matthew.  Their life together thus far has been turbulent and eventful, but as the book blurb says, “nothing in their previous life has prepared them for the mayhem that is about to be unleashed upon them.” 

It's my great pleasure to host Anna's guest blog today as part of her launch of Revenge & Retribution.  Anna has won legions of fans for the books in the Graham series, two of which have been awarded the B.R.A.G. (Book Readers Appreciation Group) Medallion.  Two have been nominated (and one is on the final short list) for the 2014 RONE Award (Reward of Novel Excellence), to be presented by the Romance Novel Convention.

She is also a blogger par excellence – my personal favorite blogger, in fact, both for her lively and witty historical posts, and for her wise and compassionate philosophical and personal posts, many of which have moved me deeply.  And to think that she can pull all of this off in several languages...  I'm in awe.  I think you'll enjoy her post, containing interesting background information, and the excerpt, which is from an earlier volume in the series (Like Chaff in the Wind).

Anna Belfrage
Here's Anna, in her own words: 

I was raised abroad, on a pungent mix of Latin American culture, English history and Swedish traditions. As a result I'm multilingual and most of my reading is historical- both non-fiction and fiction. Possessed of a lively imagination, I have drawers full of potential stories, all of them set in the past. For years I combined a challenging career with four children and the odd snatched moment of writing. Luckily, children grow up, and now I spend most of my free time at my writing desk attempting to decipher the squiggled ideas I've jotted down over the years. Every now and then I succeed. I was always going to be a writer. Now I am - I have achieved my dream. Want to know more? Visit the author's website at:

Indentured servants – the backbone of the colonies 


Let’s face it; the first English attempts to set up a successful colony in the New World failed dismally. That first outpost of English culture, Roanoke, mysteriously disappeared. The proud little settlement of Jamestown suffered through starvation and indigenous attacks. In general, people who went to the colonies in search of a better life ended up dead, and for some odd reason this made it difficult to recruit new colonists.

Without people to work the land and expand the English dominion, the Colony of Virginia was pretty much doomed, so I suspect the directors of the Virginia Company perked up substantially when someone came up with the bright idea to use indentured servants to populate their land

The practise of indenture had been around for centuries. In essence it was a contract whereby one person voluntarily entered the service of another person for a stipulated period of time. In general, any payments for the service were paid out in arrears, which meant an indentured servant who absconded could not claim on his back pay.

The system set up in Virginia was somewhat different. Someone had to assume the cost of transporting the servant across the sea, and so rules were set in place whereby landowners in the colony could bring over servants at their own expense and receive up to 50 acres in compensation for their efforts. The indentured servant was compelled by contract to work off his debt for transportation and would at the end of his period of service receive some further compensation – plus some land. The problem with this little set up was that the need for indentured labour exceeded the demand – most people were reluctant to cross the sea to an unknown wilderness from which they might never return.

If people didn’t queue up for the fantastic opportunity of expanding their horizons at no cost but their hard toil, maybe some light coercion would help, and what better way to achieve this than by snatching people off the street and have them set their cross to a document they didn’t understand? Quite a number of people were carried overseas against their will, and once on the other side there was very little they could do but submit to the inevitable and work off their years.

To further swell the ranks of available labour, the powers that were quickly realised that deporting people was an excellent way of delivering able bodied men to the struggling colonies while ridding the kingdom of such undesirables as protesters in general and criminals. During the first eighty years of its existence, the Colony of Virginia received regular complements of deported people, very many of whom were Scots who clung to the Scottish Kirk, refusing to kowtow to the Anglican faith.
Whether forced or voluntary, the life of an indentured servant was no walk in the park. For a woman, there was the constant risk of being raped – these were societies with a chronic shortage of women – and should she become pregnant her term of service would be extended. The men ended up in the fields, disposable beasts of burden that were often worked until they dropped.

A disobedient (or “wilful”) servant was punished – in some cases so severely as to permanently maim the servant.  Trying to run away was a serious offence that could lead to beating so brutal the person in question died, and on top of this the reluctant immigrants had to cope with food shortages and unknown ailments. On average, four out of ten indentured servants died in Virginia during the seventeenth century. No wonder the colony had problems recruiting them!

Life in the colonies – both as an indentured servant and as a settler – play an important part in my series The Graham Saga. My male protagonist, Matthew Graham, is a devout Presbyterian, a veteran of the Commonwealth armies and a man who initially at least tends to see the world as black or white. Which is why I gifted him with Alex Lind, an opinionated modern woman who had the misfortune (or not)  of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, thereby being dragged three centuries back in time to land concussed and badly singed at an astounded Matthew’s feet.

In the second installment of The Graham Saga, Like Chaff in the Wind, Matthew is one of the unfortunates who are sold as indentured servants to Virginia. The experience leaves him scarred for life, and some aspects of his life as a slave come back to haunt him in the recently released (and at times excessively exciting) sixth book of the saga, Revenge and Retribution. However; first things first, so below is an excerpt from Like Chaff in the Wind, giving some insight into Matthew’s experiences in Virginia. I hope you enjoy it!

    Five unbearable days, and on the afternoon of the sixth day he was so tired that he accidentally upended the sled, tipping the load of tobacco plants into the dirt. Jones flew at him. 

    “Fool! Look at what you’ve done!”

    Matthew got to his feet, an effort involving far too many protesting muscles. His shoulders were permanently on fire, the harness had left broad, bleeding sores on his skin, and no matter how he tried to use his worn shirt as padding, the sores deepened and widened, a constant, flaming pain.

    “I’ll just load them back.” He bent to pick up an armful. His arms were clumsy with weariness, and it took far too long to reload the sled, with Jones an irate, vociferous spectator. Matthew leaned forward into the straps, bunching his thighs. Dear Lord! He couldn’t budge the load, the leather cutting even deeper into his lacerated skin. He tried again, and still the sled wouldn’t move. Matthew looked back across his shoulder to find Jones sitting on the sled.

    “Go on,” Jones sneered, “get a move on.”

    “You’re too heavy,” Matthew said, “you can walk.”

    Jones raised a brow. “Of course I can. But now I want you to pull.”

    Matthew felt his pulse begin to thud. Wafting curtains of red clouded his vision.
“I’m a man, aye? I’ll work as you tell me to, but you can move of your own accord, fat though you may be. I won’t be your yoked beast, I’m a man.” There was absolute silence around him, his companions staring at him with a mixture of admiration and exasperation.

    Jones stood up and moved towards him. “That’s where you’re wrong, Graham. You’re no man, not here, not now. You’re a slave, a beast to be worked until you’re no use.” He looked at Matthew expectantly, his hand tightening on the handle of his crop.

    Matthew knew he should back down, grovel and mumble, but inside of him the fire grew, red hot rage at the man in front of him, at his traitorous brother, and the injustice of it all.

    “I told you. I’ve never done anything wrong. I’m a free man.”

    Jones laughed. “Free? Then why are you still here? Why aren’t you on a ship back home?”

    “You know why! I have no money.”

    “And we own you, until you can pay yourself free, we own you.”

    “Nay, no one owns me. I’m a free man.”

    “And I tell you you’re but a slave,” Jones hissed.

    Matthew punched him straight into the face, having the distinct pleasure of hearing the cartilage in Jones’ nose crack. That was really the last thing he observed clearly, then it was all hands and feet, and the sting of the leather crop. He heard Jones call men to him and Matthew had the shirt torn from his back, he was thrown face down onto the ground and then there was the snap of leather that came down time and time again on his bared skin. One of his arms was twisted up behind his back, and in his ear he heard Jones’ heavy breathing.

    “So, what are you?”

    “A free man,” Matthew gasped. The pressure on his arm was tearing at his tendons.

    “What are you?”

    Bend! Alex shrieked in his head, for God’s sake Matthew, bend. But he didn’t want to, he had to salvage some pride, and the pain in his shoulder increased to the point where he knew it would soon be dislocated.

    “What are you?” Jones hissed again, throwing his considerable weight against Matthew’s trapped arm. Matthew groaned. Please! Alex cried, please, Matthew, for me. Don’t let him maim you for life, my love, please! In his fuddled state Matthew wasn’t sure if she was here for real, or if it was a hallucination, but the despair in her voice rang through his head.

    “I’m a slave,” Matthew mumbled, closing his eyes so that he might still see Alex, not the red earth an inch from his nose.

    “What? I didn’t hear you.”

    “I’m a slave,” Matthew mumbled again.

    “Say it out loud.” Jones heaved Matthew to his feet. “Look at all the men before you and say it.” To his everlasting shame, Matthew did as he was told.

    “I am a slave,” he said, repeating it time and time again until Jones released him to tumble to the ground.

    He lay where he had fallen, and around him he heard the sound of people moving off, leaving him to lie unaided. No one dared to touch him, lest Jones should vent his anger on them as well, and Matthew found himself staring at his hand, so close to his face. He didn’t want to move. He no longer wanted to live.

    “Please let me die. Sweetest Lord, just let me die.” He closed his eyes, and in his mind he saw Hillview, he saw a wee lad running up the lane to meet him, and there she was, laughing and crying at the same time, her skirts bunched high as she flew towards him, and he knew that of course he couldn’t die. He owed it to Alex to stay alive; he owed it to himself.


Thank you, Anna!  I appreciate your including this blog as a part of your book launch festivities, and I wish you all the best with this new book!

All of Anna’s books are available on Amazon US and Amazon UK

For more information about Anna Belfrage and her books, visit her website!

For a somewhat more visual presentation of The Graham Saga, why not watch the book trailer?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Invoking the Muses

After making an exhaustive study of what's selling and what's not in historical fiction (by which I mean I looked at some Amazon reviews, read a few Facebook posts, and took a look at my own Author Central page), I have come to a conclusion.

To wit, there is Absolutely No Point in continuing to write what people don't want to read.  I am, therefore, embarking on a project to write the most salable historical novel that has ever been written, in which I propose to invoke pretty much every cliché I can think of.  And I intend to share the results with you, my faithful blog readers.

To begin, I did what all writers must do -- I invoked the Muses.  This was only a partial success.  Calliope said that in the current publishing climate she had to be very selective, but she wished me luck finding a muse who would be a better fit with my project; I got an autoreply from Clio; Euterpe's assistant said she was not taking unsolicited requests; Melpomene had to attend a funeral; Thalia just laughed off my request; and Erato sent regrets, though she did recommend the reasonably-priced services of her sister Errata, who's taking over the position of muse of Copy Editing from Apostrophe, who is on leave after multiple relocations. 

I did manage to reach Hyperbole, muse of Marketing, and Monotone, muse of Publishing, though, so all was not lost. 

Hyperbole, contemplating Twitter feed

Monotone, muse of Publishing

Both of them were overflowing with enthusiasm.  First they tried to convince me to write about Tudors, and I had to break it to them that I don't know anything about Tudors, and the closest I could come would be Florence in the13th century.  Monotone kept insisting I could just use Wikipedia, but eventually I prevailed.

Next, the question of a title came up. 

“It's got to be The Queen's something-or-other,” said Monotone, and Hyperbole nodded.

“Or if you can't do that, it's got to be The Something-or-other's Wife,” she added.

“This is Florence in the 13th century.  There weren't any queens,” I told them.

Monotone scoffed.  “It's the middle ages, isn't it?  Of course there were queens!”

“Queens that everyone's heard of,” Hyperbole chimed in.

“Name me a medieval Italian queen that you've heard of,” I challenged her.

Hyperbole looked blank.  Monotone examined her fingernails, humming to herself.

“See?  No queens.”

“Whyever not?  How can you hold a middle ages without queens?!?  What do they put on their covers, for chrissake?”

“Florence was an anarcho-syndicalist commune,” I explained.

Four eyebrows shot up.  “Oh, really?” they said in unison.

“Well, no.  Not exactly.  But it was a commune -- nary a queen in sight.  Except maybe an occasional Queen of the May.”

A moment of silence ensued. 

“Well, okay, then, how about somebody's wife?” said Hyperbole.

“I was thinking of writing about Dante's great love and inspiration, Beatrice,” I said, watching them for a reaction.

The Poet's Wife?  I dunno – truth be told, it doesn't pull me in.”

“She wasn't his wife, she was the woman he loved.  She married a banker.”

The Banker's Wife is right out,” Monotone said firmly.  “We just put out a memoir by that title.  Rushed it out the door to take advantage of the latest financial crisis.  But maybe we could go with The Poet's Mistress.  It's not great, but it's better than The Poet's Wife.”

“Well, she wasn't exactly his mistress, actually,” I said, not quite liking where this was going.

“But surely they did have a relationship,” protested Hyperbole.

“Well, yes – he swore to write about her as no one had ever written about a woman before, and he made her immortal, and she symbolized all sorts of stuff, and he made sure her name will never be forgotten.”

“But they did, um, Have A Relationship, didn't they?” Hyperbole persisted.

“She greeted him courteously on the street,” I began, but before I could go on, they both groaned.

“Are you sure you can't come up with an Italian queen?”  Monotone's voice had taken on a wheedling tone.

“Not before 1861.”

Hyperbole turned to Monotone.  “Is 1861 trending?” she asked.

“Not in Italy.” 

“Let's wait till later to figure out the title,” I suggested, and they both reluctantly agreed.  “So I can do Beatrice?”

“Sure you can,” said Monotone.  “Only, we'll have to come up with another name for her.”

“Another – but why??” 

“Nobody will pronounce it right.  They'll say BEE-a-triss, not Bay-ah-TREE-chay,” Hyperbole explained. 

“Her nickname was Bice –“ I began, but Monotone interrupted me.

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no.  BEE-chay is not what people are going to say when they see that.  They're going to rhyme it with mice, and spice, and lice, and dice.  Not with eBay.”

“But everybody knows she's Beatrice!”

“No, they don't,” said Hyperbole patiently.  “Hardly anyone has a clue she even existed.  We need to give her a name that people can relate to.  How about Daenerys?”

I was going to have to put my foot down.  “I am not calling Beatrice 'Daenerys.'”

“Arya?  Arya would be nice.”

“No!  It has to at least be something Italian,” I wailed.

The two muses looked meaningfully at each other.  Then they turned back to me.

“There, there, dear,” said Hyperbole soothingly, and Monotone reached out and patted my hand.  “Let's call her something we can all agree on, then.  How about – Marianna?”

Marianna?  Well... I couldn't really think of any reason why not.  “I suppose so.  But how did you come up with that?”

Monotone grinned at me.  “There's an art to naming characters,” she said.  “Marianna is a lovely name, and it's a nice contraction of Maria Susanna.”


“So that's our main character,” Hyperbole said briskly.  “Now we need a female sidekick to be the narrative voice.  A Servant with a Secret, as it were.”

I was confused.  “What secret?”

“Doesn't matter.  She just needs to have one.  Keeps her interesting.  Let's call her something like Lisa.”

“Why Lisa?”

“It's pronounceable, and everybody knows about that girl whose first name was Mona and her middle name was Lisa, and it's a popular name even now, so lots of readers named Lisa will identify.  That's why I would have suggested Madison, or Alexis, or Paige, or Zoe, but I didn't think you'd go along with it.”

She was right.  I wouldn't have gone along with it.  All right, we had a main character named Marianna and her trusty sidekick Lisa, so it looked like we were about ready to get started.

But first I did have one request.  No, make that a demand.

“I want the history to be right,” I said.  They both looked at me like I had completely lost it.  “I want room for author's notes, and I don't want any anachronisms or wild inaccuracies.  Period.”

Both of my muses looked thoroughly alarmed at that.  But the ever-resourceful Hyperbole rallied quickly.

“I know,” she said.  “We'll personify your Author Notes.  We'll throw in a character who will act as a sort of history policewoman and keep everyone on the straight and narrow.  How will that be?”

“Um – okay, I guess.”  I had never heard of this, but maybe it would work.  “We can call her something like, say, Ystoria.” 

Monotone stroked her chin thoughtfully.  “Ystoria.  I think I could live with that.  It sounds exotic,” she said. 

With that settled, we went to work.  First task was to draw up a list of Essential Points – things that simply had to be there, though not in any particular order. 

Hours later, exhausted but satisfied, we had come up with the following list:
  1. Heroine must dress as a boy for extended periods and get away with it.
  2. Heroine must be nobly born. (See #6 for one possibility.)  Also nubile.  Noble and nubile.
  3. Heroine must be appalled to learn that a marriage has been arranged for her.
  4. Underlying history must be explained by the heroine's kindly tutor (alternatively, by her mother), in no more than two paragraphs.
  5. Heroine must have learned a traditionally masculine art/craft/skill from her indulgent father (or father-figure) when she was a child.
  6. At least one instance of someone's parentage not being what it seems.
  7. Heroine must do a self-inventory while looking into a mirror; must have either violet or green eyes.
  8. Heroine must find herself in a dangerous situation, grab a weapon, and discover that she's extremely gifted at using it.
  9. Must include lots of sex.  [Here we had a brief debate about whether the first sexual experience had to be Vesuvian and stellar, or could be brutal and unpleasant.  We all agreed that sex with the right partner would have to be measured on the Richter scale.]
  10. Villain(s) must be extremely non-PC.
  11. Need at least one horrific childbirth scene.
  12. Heroine must be headstrong.
At that last, Hyperbole, now wildly excited, shouted, “And willful!”

“And feisty!  And independent!  And enlightened and progressive!” Monotone added.

“And stubborn!  And empowered!  And self-actualized!  And tech-savvy!”

“Tech-savvy?” I asked, incredulous.

Hyperbole blushed.  “Sorry, I got carried away.  But everything else stands.”


Please note:  however it may sound, I really don't have it in for books about Tudors, or even anything called The Queen's Whatever, or any book that incorporates some of the clichés listed above.  (If it incorporates all of them, that's another matter.)   My own WIP contains at least one item on that list, and I am currently reading and enjoying a book about Tudors (The Queen's Exiles, by Barbara Kyle, which so far contains no clichés whatsoever).  

But.  The 1st 10 pages on an Amazon search under the category "Historical fiction" yield no fewer than 10 titles beginning "The Queen's" and another 23 books with "Queen" in the title, not counting names of specific queens.  So there is a trend here.  In a quirky, fun little book called Science Made Stupid, author Tom Weller hints that lots of places seem to get named "The Devil's [whatever]" - including such unlikely examples as "Devil's Hot Tub State Park," "Devil's Tax Shelter National Monument," "Devil's Torque Wrench Wilderness Area," "Devil's Three-Martini Lunch National Forest," "Devil's Grant Proposal National Wasteland," and "Devil's Running Gag Useless Area."  I'm beginning to think historical fiction titles are a bit like that.

Join me next time for The Story.  (Dante's Banker's WifeThe May Queen's Dilemma?)