I recently fell in love with audio books and the 2nd one I listened to was Song at Dawn: 1150 in Provence (The Troubadours Quartet) by Welsh author Jean Gill. To say I was enthralled wouldn’t do it justice. Once I accustomed by ear to the narrator’s thick brogue (Scottish/Irish?) I was pulled into a world so totally foreign to me I hung on every word, wondering how much was history and how much was fiction. I still don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. I believed every word.
Jean—tell us a little about yourself
I’m a Welsh writer and photographer now living in the south of France with two scruffy dogs, a Nikon D750, a beehive called Endeavour and a man. We escaped the rain in 2003 when my husband retired and I took the chance to write full-time. My claim to fame is that I was the first woman to be a secondary headteacher in Wales and I loved my work. If only you could lead 10,000 lives! I’m also mother or stepmother to five children so life was very hectic.
Five? Wow—I had trouble keeping up with one. Now I have two grown steps and two grandkids, so there are times my house is overflowing.
What genre(s) do you write in? Is there one you’d like to try?
I started as a poet (traditionally published) then turned to prose when I was forty. I had an idea for a second-chance romantic novel and was determined to complete it. That same year I decided to give up sugar, which was harder than writing the novel. No Bed of Roses was not only completed but published by Gomer, which motivated me to continue writing novels.
Since then I’ve written historical fiction, a dog book, YA fiction, memoir, military history and a cookbook. I’ve also translated dog training books and a biography of Edith Piaf from French to English.
I love that you follow your heart.
Not to mention the time I won a place on a HTV course in writing for television and spent a couple of years writing scripts and submitting them to various theatres and television companies. I reached the second round for a job as an Eastenders scriptwriter. The British TV soap was the highest-paying job in script writing but thank goodness I didn’t get it – I’d have had to watch an episode 😊
Although I know that commercially it’s better to stick with one or two genres, stories find me and insist on being written, in whatever form suits them best, so I follow my capricious muses into whatever adventures they lead me.
I totally understand. Reading or writing only one type of story would get boring. Like you, for me, the muse wants what the muse wants. When I try to force her to stay on the path, she sits in the corner and sulks, saying, “No words for you.” When I give her the lead, magic happens.
Perhaps you wouldn’t be surprised to know that after nineteen books in different genres, I do have ideas for other genres and might surprise my fans in the next couple of years. I’ve been asking my readers what they would like me to write next and a frequent reply is ‘fantasy’. They will get their wish! As fantasy is my favorite genre as a reader, I think the move is what one reader called ‘a natural sidestep’ from The Troubadours Quartet, which has been described as ‘Game of thrones with real history’.
I’m a huge GoT fan, and yes, I think your reader is correct. I often thought of that series while listening to Song at Dawn.
Do you write to music/create play lists?
I often listen to music when I write, a wide variety, from Metallica to 12th century troubadour songs. As the troubadours have been described as ‘the rock stars of the middle ages’ I think my penchant for heavy rock sets the atmosphere for writing just as well as my much-loved collection of medieval music.
That’s interesting. I find I can’t write if music with words is playing. The lyrics create story ideas and it’s hard to focus on what I’m already writing. I have an entire novel plotted out based on a song I heard one day. In a flash, the story appeared.
If you travel, what was your best (or worst) experience?
In the last few years I have been privileged to learn from several professional photographers as I improve (I hope!) in my own work. Thanks to my contributions to Getty and istock collections, I’ve met fellow-contributors online and some of us have managed to meet up and shoot together. These meet-ups have been amazing for my professional development and fun for the friendships formed. There are so many photographers I admire, and have worked with, that all these occasions have been special, from my first shoot led by brilliant lifestyle photographer Nils Kahle, in Bad Aussee, Austria to one I organized in Paris.
The shoot in Paris was special because of a previous disappointment. I’d set up a shoot in Malta for a dozen photographers, with top fashion photographer Kurt Paris. Two days before we were due to travel, my husband was rushed into hospital for an emergency appendectomy, so I had to cancel. Obviously I missed the shoot.
Oh no. I’m so glad it wasn’t more serious, but still…an emergency is just that.
When Getty Images set up an event in Paris (which is only a three-hour train ride from home) I asked Kurt if he would come so I could achieve my ambition and watch him at work. Three other photographer friends said they’d join us, so we had our own shoot the day before the Getty event. I hired four models for the day, chose the location (under the Pont Neuf) and we had a great time. I finally got to watch Kurt work and, what’s more, a photographer friend from Wales was with me to celebrate her birthday in Paris. That is what I call fun!
Sounds delightful. I’ve often thought I would enjoy travel writing and photography, but then I go on a long trip (the last was Africa—Tanzania and Rwanda in 2017) and realize I’m a homebody at heart. I love to travel, but couldn’t do it all the time.
Tell us about your latest work
The Troubadours Quartet is now complete. The story begins in Song at Dawn, Book 1. Here’s what reviewers have said:
‘One of the best historical novels I’ve read in a long time.’ Paul Trembling, Dragonslayer
‘Believable, page-turning and memorable.’ Lela Michael, S.P. Review
Historical Novel Society Editor’s Choice Book 1 of the award-winning Historical Fiction series The Troubadours Quartet
Winner of the Global Ebooks Award for Best Historical Fiction
Finalist in the Wishing Shelf Awards and the Chaucer Awards
On the run from abuse, Estela wakes in a ditch with only her lute, her amazing voice, and a dagger hidden in her underskirt. Her talent finds a patron in Aliénor of Aquitaine and more than a music tutor in the Queen’s finest troubadour and Commander of the Guard, Dragonetz los Pros.
Weary of war, Dragonetz uses Jewish money and Moorish expertise to build that most modern of inventions, a papermill, arousing the wrath of the Church. Their enemies gather, ready to light the political and religious powder-keg of medieval Narbonne.
Set in the period following the Second Crusade, Jean Gill’s spellbinding romantic thrillers evoke medieval France with breathtaking accuracy. The characters leap off the page and include amazing women like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Ermengarda of Narbonne, who shaped history in battles and in bedchambers.
What inspired The Troubadours Quartet?
I was reading medieval troubadour poetry, which was composed in the area of France where I live, and I came across this sentence in an introduction. ‘Rumour says that there was a female troubadour touring the south of France with a big white dog.’ As a poet and fan of Great Pyrenees dogs, how could I not write this woman’s story?!
I’ve seen pictures of your dogs—they are amazing and mystical in themselves. So, do you think the rumor was true?
Tell us about your two main characters? Were they inspired by real-life?
Dragonetz is a master troubadour and a master swordsman, a born leader who has honed his talents through experience and hard work, but who is afraid of his own effect on others.
Like his Damascene sword, Dragonetz was forged in the Holy Land. In the disastrous Second Crusade, he was Commander and troubadour to Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his idealism died in the war although he did not. Racked by guilt, he tries to keep others at a distance, for their own sake.
And then he forgets, driven by his own passions; for the invention of a watermill, for a crazy tournament against a Viking Prince; for a woman.
Like Estela, I am fascinated by this complex man and I want to keep up with him, be his partner in song and in love. Like the men who ride with him, I would follow him without question. He is that rare being; a charismatic leader who never loses his sense of responsibility, his quest for what is right and honourable. He lied to himself. His idealism never died; he just learned to hide it.
Estela is a girl on the run from an abusive family, who is determined to become a troubadour. She is young and unformed when she sings to save her life at the start of Song at Dawn but her beautiful voice and musical talent affect anyone who listens.
It was a joy to watch Estela grow in the four books, from an awkward girl into a woman I admire tremendously. As a girl, she is unaware of her beauty, finding fault with her unfashionable olive skin and curves, and she is unaware of her effect on men. Her discovery of what it means to be a (medieval) woman is a journey that faces her with challenges and questions and her choices are inspiring.
I spent a year on research before writing each book and was both amazed and angry at what fulfilling professional lives many medieval women pursued in Occitania (now southern France). They inherited titles in their own right (Eleanor was the ruler of Aquitaine, a duchy bigger than the kingdom of France) were doctors, philosophers, bakers – and troubadours. This made me angry because I’d accepted the notion of medieval women as submissive wives, whose sole purpose was childbearing, and it’s just not true. There were such roles for women but there were also daring, talented, powerful figures in history. In The Troubadours Quartet you’ll meet Ermengarda of Narbonne, The Queen of Jerusalem, and Stephania of Les Baux – all rulers in their own right.
Estela’s character remains true to my research and everything she does was possible in that time and place – and brings history to life!
I love that you spent so much time researching. It really bugs me when authors don’t take the time to get the details accurate. Yes, we write fiction, but all fiction holds a kernel of truth. Getting those kernels right makes the entire story believable.
What is the most special thing a reader has said about The Troubadours Quartet?
I have to mention two readers who have gone far beyond most fan activities. Writer Anita Kovacevic is a big Troubadours fan and as well as reviewing the books on her blog. https://anitashaven.wordpress.com/?s=song+at+dawn&submit=Go
She has created beautiful adverts with quotes from the books, which she has tweeted while she was reading each book. She’s in the middle of reading the last book so my fingers are crossed that she likes it! Here are a couple.
Another keen supporter is author and blogger Brian Wilkerson, of Trickster Eric Blog. He created a page for Song at Dawn on TV Tropes. I was touched that somebody would put in so much work for my book and I think writers can get interesting ideas from the way that the TV Tropes site analyses books.
What are you working on now?
I was invited to write a short story on the theme of the Black Death for an anthology by ten historical novelists and I have just finished my contribution. I chose Venice in 1567 and the death of a very famous painter. I was determined not to make it miserable, despite the plague background. We’ll see what readers think when the book comes out and I can’t wait to read the others’ stories!
Questions of interest to other authors
What is the best author resource you can recommend?
For Indie authors I highly recommend Alli membership, which not only offers trustworthy information on publishing and services, but also gives discounts with recommended partners, editors, cover designers and marketing services. The Facebook forum is a closed group where you get answers immediately to all the tricky questions that can arise, from experts.
I second that. I love Alli and have been a member for about two years. I’m still learning and they are still helping. Truth be told, they are even a good resource for traditionally published authors. Even they have to do a lot of book promotion and marketing and some of the info Alli provides crosses publishing choices.
Do you hide secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
Hahaha—so now I’m wondering what I might have missed.
How do you select names for your characters?
I have written a whole blog post on the subject of names in The Troubadours and didn’t even cover how Nici the dog gained his name. For real characters I still have choices to make between the different spellings and versions in different languages. In Song at Dawn four of the real historical characters were all called Raymond, so I used their titles and nicknames to distinguish between them, as well as the different possibilities of Raymond – English; Raimon – Occitan and Ramon – Catalan. For the audiobook, I asked the narrator to pronounce them all differently.
Ah, NOW I understand. At first I was confused, wondering why the difference. I realized quickly that they were different characters, so the narrator did a great job on that.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was born and raised as Aliénor and, as my book is set in what is now France, I kept to the French name for her.
For fictional names, I use online suggestions for medieval names but I also search by nationality/region and by faith background. Lord Dragonetz los Pros is an Occitan name Dragon, which has pleasing fantasy vibes, with the suffix etz, meaning ‘little’, like the French ette or the American Junior. Los Pros is ‘the Brave’ in Occitan and such a nickname was a common medieval device, useful when there were so few given names!
Thank you for clearing that up. Not being French, I made an assumption (a correct one) that it must be like Junior.
A medieval Jew living in Provence would have had a Jewish name and the Moors would have had Arabic ones, so I checked the structure of these names and languages. Every character name has a historical background.
I absolutely loved the Moorish character (his name escapes me, but I recall it being perfect for him) and was totally surprised by his role.
And the dog is called after the Occitan word for ‘useless, stupid’ because Estela, his mistress, is taking out her feelings about herself on the dog when she names him. When she ran away from her abusive family, Nici followed. He’s a Great Pyrenees who was ‘useless’ at his job of guarding sheep, and who follows Estela as her great protector. Neither of them are useless, far from it.
Jean, I’ve enjoyed our little chat. It’s so great to have another author to add to my favorites list.
Bonus! The Troubadours Quartet Boxset was just published on kobo only.
Where can people find you?
Sign up for Jean’s Newsletter http://eepurl.com/AGvy5
Youtube Channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPvXZBW-VLBibveKhXA-QZQ
IPPY Award-winning ‘Best Author Website’ www.jeangill.com
The Troubadours Page https://www.facebook.com/jeangilltroubadours