Whining about wine

A departure here from my usual never-to-be-missed ruminations about writing, or those dazzling reviews of recently read novels. (And yes I know I’ve fallen down on the reviewing job lately but I lost my reporter’s fedora and I’m useless never mind witless without it.)

Today’s blog post is about foibles. Yes. Foibles. And wine. To be explicit, my weakness is the inability to pick the correct wine–i.e., the one I’ve been tasting in my memory but can’t reproduce in real life with real alcohol.

You see, in real life a Cote du Rhone or Beaujolais Nouveau would be perfect. Unfortunately, it’s mid-spring, and you don’t want a Beaujolais Nouveau now. It’s, well, it’s not nouveau anymore. It’s past its prime and can be akin to cotton. Maybe it’s good for bathing. But no, the Japanese do that in hot springs fortified with Beaujolais Nouveau in November.

And though I’m told gamay grapes–those which make the fresh and fruity Beaujolais Nouveau–have been described as the ‘younger sibling’ of pinot noir, I never liked pinot noir. But I allowed myself to be convinced that this was what I wanted and came home with a bottle of a Burgundy region Beaujolais blend.

It wasn’t light, and the dryness was overwhelming. In fact, all we could taste was dry. No grape. No fruit. Not even leather (though I don’t know who’d want their wine to have leather notes. All I think of regarding leather notes are saddle cinches. Not pleasant.)

Not to waste the bottle, I dredged up a favorite old chicken recipe that calls for a sauce composed of a butter/flour roux, a 6 oz can of tomato paste, and the 26 oz bottle of dry red wine. Of course, there are herbs and slivers of raw ham added, but you get the gist.

The sauce was superb.

I crossed the gamay blend off my list and trekked back to the wine shop.

“I’d like a grenache,” I said, and was instructed that that grape originated in Spain, where it’s routinely blended with other varieties.

I bought a bottle blended with Syrah (or Shiraz). It was drinkable, but while not full-bodied or heavy, it lacked the fruitiness I wanted, and so I used half the bottle along with some sugar to poach pears. They were yummy.

Back to the store. By this time, I didn’t want to be lectured. I was downright demanding. I wanted a true grenache and that’s all I wanted. A Cote du Rhone, I told the wine expert.

He told me that they, too, are usually blended–over 80% grenache in the Southern Rhone area of France, and sold me a Chateauneuf du Pape.

I thought ‘I have struck gold!’ I knew the region. Knew the grape. Its tannins would be very subtle, its nose fruity, its body light. But when I got home, I saw the blend was only 59% grenache.

Now, I don’t think I failed to make myself clear. Writing fiction, which is what I do, demands clarity–of images, actions, setting. And so I’m sure I explained myself well. Whether the wine merchant understood me or had his own ulterior motives is another issue.

I haven’t opened the bottle yet. I’m saving it for Sunday supper. I sure hope it’s what I want because honestly, I don’t have any more recipes that use a 26 oz. bottle of dry red wine.




Do you know him?

When characters spring to life on the page–fully fleshed, breathing, with their quirks–it’s because the writer who created them understood them ahead of time, created their backstory.

For Jim Ambrose, philandering husband and one of the antagonists in With Malice towards One, I knew this much based on a conversation I had early on with Danny Ambrose, the female protagonist. His backstory says a lot about Danny, as well.

“Has Jim any family?”

“No. His folks died young in a freaky two year period. His dad had a premature heart attack in his early thirties and his mom died of complications from the flu. Jim was raised by his mother’s sister Rose, a tallish, raw-boned spinster with a will of iron.

“They were never close. The first time he ever mentioned her was when we got engaged and he supposed we’d have to invite her to the wedding, he said. Even now, I can recall the moment that day when Rose, ever quiet and prim, took me aside and said, ‘Well, my dear, he’s your responsibility now.’  Her expression crossed somewhere between haggard and dubious, as if she were exhausted from dealing with him and doubted that I was up to the challenge.

“In the first years of our marriage we went to her home in Hartford for the holidays, but there was always an air of indignation or antagonism or disapproval—from him or her…I never could quite tell who it originated with. Looking back, it might have been that they were both too strong. You know, both vying for control? Whatever the reason, it ruined the holiday and by our third Christmas Jim decided Connecticut was too far to travel from Long Island. We sent flowers instead.

“I called her every month or so, but he’d never speak to her. She died alone in the house in Hartford about seven or eight years ago, and I still wonder if I’d abrogated my responsibility—to Aunt Rose.”

Malcolm Robertson, the history professor in With Malice towards One, told me this about himself:

“I was born at the end of the second World War. My father had been home on leave, gotten Mother pregnant, then gotten killed in the last air strikes on Germany.” He offered a wry smile. “Mother, Aunt Lucy and Aunt Margaret raised me, and I’ve often wondered if it was that household of women that accounts for the fact that I’m more comfortable around the fairer sex than around men.

“And perhaps that’s why I married Em. She was pretty, and level-headed, knew how to bake like Lucy and keep her accounts like Mother. We laughed together, and I truly thought I loved her, but she wanted sex a lot more than companionship. I could ehm… perform the act, just never got a lot out of it. It was a few years before I could admit that the reason she didn’t appeal to me for sex was that I was gay. It took me another year to get over that shock, but, once I did, Emily and I parted company. She was a great girl about it, wanting me to be happy as much as she wanted a richer relationship for herself.

“I began to explore my sexuality.carefully. I had a few short-lived relationships with lovers–but only a few. After all, it’s a stupid cat that dirties in his own garden, you know. I wasn’t trying to hide my situation from school officials. I’d been up front with colleagues, especially after a few of them tried to fix me up with single women they knew. No, I simply felt it was beneath me to live a life of flagrant sex. And yes, still, because I felt more comfortable around women than men, I found the introductory parts of new relationships very difficult indeed. Still do.”

A small bit of backstory for Geoffrey Gandulf, reeve of Norburnshire for William de la Coeur Grifon in The Luck of Two Magpies.

Inseparable playmates they had been as children, Geoff thought, but manhood and rank had made them as different as servant and master. Even so, this William was the lad he had loved to whoop and run with; the young lord who had got drunk with him the morn Taddy was born; the man who arrived home when the old Earl his father died, and wept for his loss on Geoff’s shoulder. Separate and unequal they were, but linked irrevocably—master and servant and more.


And the most interesting development to come out of knowing your character’s backstory? That despite that knowledge, they can still surprise you in the scenes they appear in.

Igniting creativity

Sometimes at research, following an unintended path leads to a spark of creativity and whole scenes unfold. So it was one afternoon when I began to research Books of Hours and found that they were personalized books of prayer and meditation commissioned by wealthy or noble parents upon their children’s birth. A book of hours was to be read throughout the child’s life to provide a path to salvation.

Books of Hours led me to a French theological writer named Peter Comestor. His commentaries on the gospels, Scripture allegories and on St. Paul have never been published. His sermons do exist in several manuscripts, but the published work for which he is known, a sacred history entitled Historia Scholastica, was composed for students. It met with great success and was popular from the 1100s when he lived through the 1600s, even though–or perhaps because–he borrowed from profane writers and included inaccuracies often posing as fables.

One such story determines that the sins of women were responsible for Christ’s crucifixion, the full explanation noted below in the scene that exploded from my warped little brain fully formed.

Of course, as with many research inspired scenes, this one was excised early on as extraneous, though it is still copyrighted by me and may not be reproduced without explicit permission.

It is R-rated.

The floorboards squeaked just enough to wake him as he drowsed comfortably, Elisa beside him. From the corner of his eye, he spied Mistress Hood’s red hair stream down her back as she left his chamber, a covered basin in her arms.

Who would have thought a woman would serve in his chambers? Yet, this morn, less than a month after his wedding, it was not only so, but as normal as using the piss pot she carried.

He allowed his mind to wander. Contentment filled his life these days were it not for the lost box.

He banished it from his thoughts and concentrated on his wife, a precious jewel he coveted and would protect with his life. She pored over his books with the practiced eye of a factor; was ever patient as his secretary. On fair days, she rode out with him. On foul ones, she told him stories of her world. And in the evenings?  Ah, the evenings. He had never known such heated excitement, such ecstasy, such satisfied exhaustion as with this woman. She drew him like steel to a magnet, and he thanked God once more for the gift of a wife he could love.

He kissed her neck and lay on his back, Elisa tucked close, his thoughts for once, blissfully at peace.

“Penny for your thoughts,” she said.

He glanced sidelong at her. “Eh?”

“I say I’ll give you a penny if you tell me what you’re thinking.”

“Why would I tell you my thoughts and have you pay me for it with my own penny?”

Your penny?”

He fought to keep from smiling. “Aye. Did you bring one from your world?”

She wrinkled up her nose and stuck out her tongue.

He laughed soundly as he rolled her way and hugged her. “It matters not. For you are mine, as well.”  He exhaled a dramatic sigh. “You are mine, the penny is mine.”  He crushed her against him playfully and rocked her back and forth. “All well and goodely for I am a good man.”

“And I’m not a good woman?” she squeaked from somewhere in his arms.

“Oh, aye. At some things, ve-ry good.”

She punched his shoulder, a glancing blow that he paid no mind to. All was perfect. Peace, quiet, his wife beside him.

Her palms slid up his chest. She shoved him away. “Y’know, Will,” she said. “At our wedding?  That friend of our mother’s… Dame Dunstable—”

Was there no end to that shrew’s trouble-making? “Dunstable’s woman is no friend of mother’s. She is wife to my father’s vassal who is now mine. What did she say you?”

“That I should have bargained better.”

“Bargain for better than to wed with me?” He snorted.

“No. Bargained for money for me…An allowance. So that…uhm…if we had only girls and I wanted to pay to have prayers said for sons… or if I wanted to support some priests or monks or other, I’d have money to do it. Or if I had to support—”

She shut her mouth so quick he heard the small ‘pop,’ and the red that blotched her cheeks made him curious about what she hid.

“No need for an allowance. Why would I not pay for sons, woman?” he drawled, straining to keep laughter from his voice. “Prayers for my heirs should come from my purse, eh?”

“I suppose.” She pouted now he’d stolen the wind from her sails.

“What other reasons?” he asked as idly as he could.

“None. Never mind.”

“Which is it?  There are no others?  Or none you wish to tell me?”

He could see his laughing gaze mirrored in her eyes, and then he lost the use of her mirror as she narrowed her eyelids.

“Fine,” she said on a growl. “She said I should have lots of money of my own. That way, when you presented me with bastard sons—as you were sure to do—I’d be able to provide for them, as was my right,” she said tartly.

His laughter exploded like cannonade even as she glowered at him. “For certes, no need, then,” he said as he folded her back into his arms. “For I will ne’er have another woman, my heart.”  He glanced down to find her mouth pursed and sulking, but ‘twas for show, he was certain, for her eyes were soft with pleasure. “I did say you that you were the only woman for me… ever.”

He took advantage of the effect his words had on her, and rolled her onto her back, leisurely suckling at her nipple.



“That John Dunstable…he seemed so-so saintly looking. Did he really have that many children with other women?”

“If you did marry for the widow’s dowry as Squire Dunstable did, and along with the dowry you must take the shrewish widow, as Mathilde is, then you would seek your comfort in the arms of sweeter flesh and softer tongues… as John Dunstable does.”  He aimed for Elisa’s nipple again.

“Does? Still?”

He marked the incredulity in her voice. “Aye.”

“How many?”


“How many children?”


“How long have they been married?”

He released her nipple with a loud snap. “Much longer than we are and if you will not let me take my pleasure his count will be far higher than mine.”

She giggled. “Do you mean to catch up?”

“With Dunstable or you?” he grumbled as he settled between her legs.


“Ah, good. Then there is a chance. For I could ne’er out-talk you.”

She wriggled against him as he began to move. “Will?”

“Umph!” All activity ceased. “ ‘Tis a true thing, then.”

“What is?”

“That woman did crucify the Christ.”

Her mouth fell open. “What are you talking about?”

“That the purpose of your gender is to lead man astray from his rightful purpose.”

“How ridiculous!” She fell quiet while he resumed his rightful purpose.


He froze. “What is it?”

“How is it that we women were responsible for Christ’s crucifixion?”

His blood rose, and not where ‘twas wanted. “This can not wait until…until after?!”

She arched her brow and sniffed. “After the slur you made? I feel responsible for all womankind.”

Groaning, he rolled off her. “Eve tempted Adam with an apple. The apple did grow on a tree in the Garden of Eden, aye?”

She nodded.

“Christ was crucified on a cross fashioned from the wood from that same tree. Therefore, womankind crucified God.”


“What is?”

“The whole idea.”

“So it is written by Petrus Comestor, monk and documentor. So it is written in many Books of Hours, including my father’s. Christ died on a cross of woman’s making.”  He stabbed her breastbone with his fingertip and rolled onto his back. “And so will I,” he grumbled, annoyed further when she laughed.

“That’s ridiculous, Will. The whole thing.”

‘Twas he who pouted now. “Is it?—Unh!”

“Yes,” she continued from astride his chest. “First, it’s highly unlikely an apple tree would live two thousand years.”

“Aye, in truth,” he said, “ ‘twould be all of the years of the Old Testament and two-and thirty of the New,” he figured as he ran his palms down her calves.

“Then you’ve proven my point.”

“And the other?”

“Other what?”

“You did say ‘first’. I did assume there was another.”

“Well, there is. It’s a commonly accepted fact that Adam and Eve were fables.”

“Fables?!”  Surely this was blasphemy.

“Yes—Why are you moaning?  Most scholars agree there was no such thing as a Garden of Eden.”  She slapped his chest. “Evolution’s the thing.”

“Ah, aye…e-vo-lution.” It felt false just to get his mouth around the word. He could not believe it when she’d explained it, nor the thought that the world was round. How could it be that oceans and people clung to its bottom without falling off? For days after she told him about earth’s roundness, he would glance up at the sky, expecting to see a cow or long-house fall from it. He scowled as she laughed soundly.

“You don’t believe it, do you, Will?”

“Nay.” He wrinkled his nose. “Not natural.”

She laughed. “It’s useless to argue this. I know you won’t accept the concept of cells and mutation and acclimation.”

He only shook his head, though he suspected that some part of him ought to be insulted by her slander of his intelligence.

“Tell you what.”  She leered at him in the way she had that drove him mad. “I’ll give you a chance to get even for the awful things my sex has done.”

It sounded promising. “Aye?”

“Nail me.”

He gasped, horrified. “Elisa!”

She shrugged. “You’re as big as a tree…Nail me.”

She shocked him to silence. Of course his wife could be crude. That bothered him not. In fact, he liked it, but  there was one thing that left him uneasy. She had the unsettling habit of combining her lewdness with something that sounded like sacrilege.

“I have told you before to be careful what you say, little wife.”

She shrugged. “I didn’t say anything wrong. You inferred it. And besides, there’s only you and me here.”

He pulled her down and kissed her hard. “And there is only you for me, my heart, and my cautions are given so that you will learn to be circumspect and will not be taken from me.”

This was his greatest fear. That someone would mark her a witch and she would be taken from him, killed. So far as he knew, no one had been burned at the stake in England but it could happen. And were it to happen to Elisa—

His chest closed so tight he gasped for air. It felt like the day Obstine rolled onto him. He stared into her eyes and shook her by the shoulders. “You must heed me in this.”

She nodded, no doubt feeling guilt were he to go by her gaze as it darted o’er his features. Was it the guilt of woman for weakening man as Eve did Adam?  Or was it for wanting love and pursuing it past reason? If so, he shared her guilt.

“Yes, Will,” she said softly as she rubbed at her chest, her own breathing as labored as his. The guilt in her gaze grew into worry. Was it for their future? Their children’s?

And yet the rebelliousness was there, that wildness that appeared in her eyes when some thing in his time frustrated or angered her. Aye, it was there, and the fear, as well, and love gleamed through flipping motes and drowned out the other emotions, until the woman who sat astride him trembled around him, the timorous smile claiming her lips so at odds with the fierceness of her stare.

“You win.”  She sighed, stretching, arms high over her head, the undulation rolling through her shoulders, ribs, belly and hips. Ah, vixen that she was. His want grew.

He filled his palms with her buttocks, twisting until he pinned her beneath him. “Serpent thou art,” he whispered in her ear. “Sinner and saint and woman and mine.”

“Love me…”

“I do.”


Character and experience, the making of Willam Grifon

William Dyrke de la Coeur Grifon was born on Sept. 30, 1366 to his mother, Margarida de Beaumont and his father, Dyrke de la Coeur Grifon, at his mother’s dower castle, Bien Venue. At the time of his birth, his parents had been married over 10 years and his mother had nearly despaired of bearing an heir. The young miracle had only one playmate when he was very young, his mother’s 14 year old maid, Helaine d’Aelfstun, and the old tower and upper bailey of the double-ringed, moated castle was his playground.

As William grew, Dyrke employed tutors for his son, who applied himself to his schoolwork more out of duty to his father than out of real interest. His reward was his father’s company. William often accompanied Dyrke south to observe the rising walls of the palace his father was building and would name Grifon’s Nest. If William was lucky, he could play at swords with the sons of his father’s reeve, or manager, old Gandulf. Once, at play, young Geoff Gandulf broke a window at the site, and when William saw his father’s rage, he knew Geoff would have a whipping for it, so he told his father he broke it. He got off with a lecture, and earned a friend for life.

As a young teen, his academic tutoring continued, but a sword master and tutors for the horse and warfare were added. These subjects he enjoyed. His body, still growing and in good health, thrived on the physical exercise. He discovered he had a talent for warfare and battle planning.

When he was 13, he fell from a horse as he tilted at the quintain, broke his arm and developed a fever. His mother bundled him up and took him into the woods to a strange old man named Nichol, who set his bone and gave his mother the herbs needed to mend his arm and strengthen his febrile condition. Years later and in a foul mood, William would come upon Nichol in the woods and would have to be reminded of the man’s service to himself and his mother.

For his 15th birthday, his father gave him a stallion, a big-boned destrier with whom WilliamWilliam-darker-web could refine his equestrian studies. He learned quickly that the stallion, whom he named Hrothgar, was headstrong, and that while William could be even more headstrong, both his stubbornness and physical strength must be tempered with finesse and kindness to bring about the kind of partnership he wanted and needed with Hrothgar. And so he followed his father’s master of the horse about, soaking in the man’s knowledge and applying it to his stallion’s training, so that when he spent a year under his liege lord’s roof to gain a sense of the political strata he’d travel in, Hrothgar went with him and was the envy of all the other squires.

Just shy of his 17th birthday, William went to OxfordUniversity to complete his education. There he met Andrew MacKay, who would become his lifelong friend, despite being a Scot and later a spy. Here he also met and grew familiar with his peers, including Ancel Catington, a close friend despite their opposing political views and family ties.

He accompanied his father to family estates in Normandy and in Bretagne, all in secret, as it was illegal at the time for an English noble to own property in Normandy and much of France. He had a fling or two while at Oxford, but it wasn’t until he spent time in Paris immersed in his father’s businesses that William fell in love and experienced the kind of real heartbreak that left him emotionally scarred. He found himself involved in duels for his honor, and fought his way out of more than one ambush that should have cost him his life. In a peculiar twist of fate, one of his attackers died in his arms as William listened to his tale of a hard life and his regret at leaving a loving wife and three children. Angry with the thief, yet filled with compassion, William buried the man and anonymously sent his family enough money to buy a hectare of land, a cow, two breeding pigs and some chickens.

Conservative by nature, stubbornly iconoclastic, jealous of his responsibilities and wary of political entanglements as his father had taught him to be, his time in Normandy and France expanded his knowledge of the world for better and worse.

When he returned to Norburnshire at his father’s death, William was a changed man.

What makes a man tick

How do you know what makes characters tick? You develop a backstory for each one, and as I’m writing in the historical genre, my characters are grounded in their period, the tail end of the 14th century.

The men of The Luck of Two Magpies—William de la Coeur Grifon, earl Norburnshire; Andrew MacKay, earl Pentland; Ancel Catington, earl Middleton, and Justin Beaufort, Archdeacon of Northumbria—are all of the titled class. They’re English or Scottish, earls or royal bastard, and although each man’s lineage differs, they share general commonalities.

A firstborn male child of nobility pretty much had his future laid out for him. As inheritor of wasters his father’s title, he was introduced to his future and his parents’ expectations early on. Toys for noble boys mimicked adult weapons and tools, so that William, Ancel, and Andrew would have played with pint-sized swords called wasters and shields, and would have toy knights on horseback made of wood, tin or lead to play with, much as little boys today have miniature soldiers or jedi warrior figures. As a son of royal lineage, Justin Beaufort would also have played with these along with his brothers.

The sons of the nobility were loved and cared for by their parents. Portraits of the late 14th century and early 15th century show fathers doting on adoring sons. Yes, they had wetnurses until about the age of two whereas in the lower classes mothers nursed their own infants, but infant and childhood mortality rates were high, and parents grieved over the loss of a child. And given that high rate of infant mortality (and the fact that there was no birth control except abstinence—well, there was, but I’ll save that tidbit for the novel), noble women were expected to produce heirs in multiples. The current phrase ‘an heir and a spare’ isn’t a new notion.

medieval studentsAt home, small boys of the aristocracy learned refined manners and social mores, including proper table manners, which meant coming to board with immaculately clean fingernails as eating was an affair for hands and an eating dagger. (Forks were eschewed in northern Europe and England though they were used in the Middle East and southern Europe.) Noble children learned how to sing, dance and play instruments. Boys learned the concepts of chivalry, morality and nobility. A boy’s aspirations toward these concepts would be fueled by attending tournaments with his father and hearing stories and song of brave knightly deeds and combats.

By the age of six or seven, they would begin to learn reading and writing at home withtext book tutors, though some sons would be sent to their liege lords’ households to become pages. This was more prevalent in the early medieval era. By the late 1300s onward, most noble sons were educated at home with tutors or sent to schools, and some were sent to university at about 16 years of age, where studies of the natural sciences, philosophy and mathematics were explored.

Many were knighted around that age as well, though in some cases favored sons were knighted early. For example, Henry (Hotspur) Percy, who would become earl BeknightingNorthumberland in due course, was knighted by King Edward III just prior to Henry’s 13th birthday, and at 16 he served with the Earl of March’s army in Ireland.

Whether trained at home or away, their days were spent conquering reading, writing, mathematics and Latin as well as gaining proficiency at skills to be used in war or in the social setting of tournaments. They tilted at the quintain and watched their seniors to develop the skills of the lance and the sword, and joined in the prestigious sport of hunting to further hone their horsemanship and weaponry skills.

These boys were betrothed early on, promised to a young girl who brought a dowry, title and or lands that would enrich his title and holdings when the two married. Marriage ages were sometimes stipulated in the betrothal contracts, and while the marriageable age for a boy was considered to be 13 and for a girl 12, they often waited some years after that before entering into the marriage. 

How did this upbringing affect them when their fathers died and they inherited their titles? Well, characters are individuals, and while some experiences give them common ground, their family lives, their teachers and associates, and their own personalities play as much of a role as their training in who they become.

Next up: William.