Description – Embellishment or Info-Dump?

How much description do you add to your story?

Do you go into lyrical descriptions of the world surrounding your characters: that fantastic sunset, every detail of that market scene, the name of every bird that sings in the forest as your hero passes on his horse, or every blow in the battle and every drop of blood that falls?

Or is it  ‘Just the facts, ma’am’?

I have been catching up on some reading. I have read two books, both long, both include a lot of description, but with very different results. Both are set in the Anglo-Saxon period.

The first is “Under Lynden Church” by Lindsay Jacob. I am not sure where I first noticed it, but it was £2.64 on Kindle and looked interesting.

It is partly set in modern times. An archaeologist finds a grave, deep below a village church, not far from Cambridge. It is connected, in a way not immediately apparent, to events in the ninth century. It is the time of the Danish invasion, but King Alfred is barely mentioned. This is East Anglia. King Edmund (later St Edmund) is dead. The last of the Wuffingas fights against the Danes, as well as the neighbouring King of Mercia.

Most of the action is set in Ely and the fens, as is some of my book. It had all the signs of being interesting. None of the characters appear to be real people but that is what writers of historical fiction do (all fiction for that matter). They take a situation that might have happened and work it into a story. Nothing wrong with that. This story was good, I wanted to enjoy it, but…

It was hard going, I seemed to be reading it very slowly – it was on my Kindle and the percentage counter never seemed to move. That was when I realised it was 545 pages. I struggled on. There is a lot of description of people struggling through the fens – I felt I was with them every step of the way. I soon wondered if I should give up, but a book has to be exceptionally bad for me to give up. I would go halfway then decide whether to finish it. At that point I was interested enough to carry on and eventually finished it.

I was disappointed, because it could have been so much better. The author had found a good plot, she had obviously done a lot of research, but it was if she had then decided that was it and published everything, in the rough order of the plot, dropping in the “modern” part of the story at random. With a good editor it would have been half the length and a decent read.

For example, the archaeologist meets someone in a pub and there are several pages of the man’s family history, from birth, through school, various jobs, his relationship with his wife, her affair with another man and how they now enjoy sitting at home watching television. It’s not even revealed by conversation and is completely unnecessary.

On the other hand, characters are neglected, ignored for long periods of time, then reappear. Sometimes they have changed, with no explanation of why. Others remain the same throughout, never evolving from their first appearance to the end. I remember a scene of people returning from a battle. A woman is upset, her lover has died. It stopped me in my tracks – her lover? I scrolled back a couple of pages (yes, just a couple) She had arrived at the camp. They must have met because he was there, but there was no mention of a meeting, much less becoming lovers. Why waste page after interminable page of tramping through mud and then throw away such character development. If you want to keep reading, want to find out what happens to the characters, you need to know them.

The characters were too alike. The men were all weak, downtrodden, miserable – apart from the nasty bullies. The women were all heroic – the main character (Emma?) leads the army. Is she the woman in the coffin? Perhaps not, because there are other woman just as worthy. I lost track of all the coffins and burials at the end.Was it the end, I wasn’t sure, and by that time I just didn’t care.

After that, I had to read something else. as you need a glass of water after a large, slightly dry sandwich, all bread and little filling.

Recently I was in the local library. I went there to do some local history research, looking up someone in a directory. To get to the local studies area you have to pass lots of books (they still have a few despite the effort nowadays to fill libraries with computer screens!). I saw a couple of interesting books and checked them out.

This was how I used to read – go to the library – take out as many books as I could – read them – return them – take out more. I sometimes wonder how many books I’ve read over the years, whole series when I found one and liked it. Attracted by a title, not many had attractive covers when I was young, not in the adult section anyway.

The book I took this time was one I had seen mentioned, a review in the paper? A blog or website? Somewhere I had noticed it. This was another Anglo-Saxon book, but set much earlier, in the seventh century, in Northumbria. A popular time and place. The book was “Hild” by Nicola Griffith. It was also long, 640 pages in the Kindle version and costing £6.99. The library book was 625 words and of course, free.

Hild is the story of St Hilda of Whitby. Her early life, from the age of three to… I’m not sure of a her age at the end, late teens? Long before she became a nun and abbess.

Hild was the niece of King Edwin. Her mother brings her up as a seer, she becomes adviser to the king, but it is a precarious position. What will happen to her if she fails to tell him what will happen? There is nothing supernatural about this. An intelligent girl, she trains herself to watch everything and everyone. She roams the countryside, watching the animals, learning about plants, witnessing the weather. As part of the court she watches people, what they think, how they react, how to behave and how to influence them.

The royal court moves regularly. She learns about the different places and watches as they change. Over the years religion changes. Paulinus comes to the north with King Edwin’s new wife. He is determined to convert the pagans to Christianity – his brand of Christianity. He hates the Celtic monks and tries to destroy them. All the time Hild watches, judging, is this new religion good or bad? How will it affect the Kingdom?

Apart from politics, Hild works with the other royal women, in the weaving shed and dairy. With her mother and the queen she helps to set up trading links, both within the north but further afield.

She grows tall, she trains as a warrior, she carries a seax. People fear her because they do not understand her. Her fear is losing the people she loves. She fights to protect them – sometimes violently.

There is much description, but nowhere is it superfluous. The reader stands at Hild’s shoulder, learning with her. The places and countryside, the details of everyday life, what women do, and men. I learned so much of life at that time. I think I will have to buy a copy, just for reference.

But as well as useful, the descriptions are beautiful, like poetry. It was a long book, but I didn’t want it to end.

So, two books. One has taught me how not to write, the other an inspiration to aspire to.

Better get writing again.

Belated Memories of a Pirate – and other deaths.

Every year I remember the Eleventh of April. This year I forgot – well I remembered late in the day – too late to blog about it.

It is the anniversary of the death of John Madder, in 1705. He was a real person, but not a real pirate, that was the excuse they gave to kill him.

I remember him because of his name, which I used to share.
I remember him because of his tragic death, with its connections to the Union, or not, between England and Scotland.
And now I remember him as the person who started me writing. Read about that in a previous post. I could so easily have written my novel about him – perhaps, sometime, I will.

The reason I forgot to remember was because I was too busy remembering.

In another life, I am responsible for running a website remembering men who died in the First World War. We publish a biography of each man from our local war memorial on the centenary of his death (there are over four hundred). I don’t do it all myself, we have volunteers, although not as many as I’d like. But I am the coordinator. I read them through, checking for mistakes then publish them on the blog. Last weekend was the centenary of the Battle of Arras – the anniversary was in the news, mainly about the Canadians at Vimy Ridge. But from our town, in the centre of England, six men died on Sunday 9th April 1917, two more on Monday and another two yesterday. Those last two were in the same regiment, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. I have been reading the war diaries – they are not named, just included in the anonymous list of casualties.

Total casualties for the period 9th to 21st Incl.
Killed: 2 Officers,  43 Other Ranks (includes 10 died of wounds since)
Wounded and missing: 1 Officer, 0 Other Ranks
Wounded:  5 Officers,  173 Other Ranks
Missing: 0 Officers, 33 Other Ranks
Missing believed wounded: 0 Officers, 1 Other Ranks.

Most casualties were from enemy shelling as they assembled before the attack.

So many men, so many stories. Perhaps I should be writing about that period, I have learned so much about it. Many writers, better than me, have done just that.

I started thinking about Byrhtnoth. What would he think about the four year battle that was the First World War? The idea would excite him – he loves to fight. But the reality would shock him. For him, war is man to man, fighting in the shield wall. Not sheltering in a trench from overhead bombardment. We tend to think that the Dark Ages (or Early Middle Ages, as they are now called.) was a violent time. If you read some authors it was all battles! But the battles were short, afterwards the survivors went home, harvested their crops, had feasts and told stories round the hearth.

Our job, as writers, particularly of Historical Fiction, is an act of remembrance. We remember the men and woman, famous or invisible. We bring them alive, tell their stories, so they will be remembered.

So I will not say that this week I have done no writing. I have been writing biographies, in my own act of remembrance.

If you do not know the man (or woman), how can you remember him?

The Book now Standing…

I’m not saying that the book is at a standstill – it is waiting, billowing steam everywhere, eager to go, but, at the moment, waiting.

This is not a problem, it is a planned stop. As mentioned last week I was expecting Book 1 back from my editor. It was delayed for a few days so I managed 4,860 words (of book 2) this week. This included a scene I had been dreading writing from the start. I managed to write it, although I’m not sure I’ll ever let anyone read it. At least I got the words out! I have now reached a total 82,711, the end is in sight, downhill all the way. I just hope I don’t hit the buffers. But enough of these train metaphors – I can’t use them in my books, so it’s good to get them off my chest!

A train, going nowhere – yet.

I am now editing, not writing. It’s going OK so far. Most of the red ink is to do with my mistakes over the punctuation of dialogue – I promise I’ll get it right from now on. Then there is my unfortunate compulsion for the passive tense, all nicely sorted. It has been a bit of a shock to hear my characters speaking with someone else’s voice when extra text is needed, but that is something I must accept – most of the time.

There was one comment. It concerns a character that is introduced early in the book, and never again. Could there be more about her later?  I spent a lot of time thinking about this and came up with something – she enters and disappears again. Should she appear again? It this point I received another editorial communication. Could she be connected to another character?

My first thought was No. Then I got one of those flashes of inspiration. Perhaps she isn’t a separate character, perhaps she is a character that is already there! It kept me up half the night. It couldn’t be her, because of the age difference. If I change that, then something later isn’t right. Alter this and that becomes impossible. I don’t know if I can sort it out. If I do, it will mean some re-writing, but the book will be better.

It is a good job that I was not planning to rush into print (or the digital equivalent.) For a few moments I was tempted. I discovered that Conn Iggulden (one of the big beasts in Historical Fiction) publishes a new book next month – 4th May – not that you’re interested. The title is Dunstan: One Man Will Change the Fate of England. It is about Dunstan (later St Dunstan). Dunstan is a character in my book (minor but important). It starts in the year 937 – so does mine.

After screaming, rolling on the floor and tearing out my hair, my first thought was “Should I give up now?” Everyone will assume that I was copying him. What if I published first? Apart from the fact that no-one would notice, I’m not sure if I could manage that in a month. Anyway, why rush? I’m not ready yet.

My second thought was: If his book is a success, then it shows that there is a market of this period. Just as there is room for Bernard Cornwall and… everyone else who writes about King Alfred, or other personalities of the Anglo-Saxon period. I can live with it.

Just please, please, no-one write a book about Byrhtnoth – at least not until I’m famous and they can be accused of copying me!

 

Every Character has a Mother.

I was at a loss at what to write about this week, when I realised it was Mother’s Day (in the UK – somewhere else it is held on a different day.)

I have done my duty, delivering a bunch of daffodils, fresh from the garden, and a card to my own mother. I have received, in my turn, the dutiful visits and phone calls from my own offspring – someone must have reminded them! Honour has been satisfied.

The occasion got me thinking about my characters. They must all have had mothers. What were they like and did they have any influence on their children? Are any of them mothers themselves?

To answer the second question first, no major characters are mothers, although I am sure this will change in later books. There are a couple of motherly woman.There is one who helps one son murder the other, Anglo-Saxon history is full of that sort of thing.

On the other hand, my characters have mothers. In fact I could almost say that my protagonist’s mother is the inciting incident. She doesn’t appear at all, but by dying, when Byrhtnoth is only seven, she sets the plot into action. When I started the first book I thought it was about the search for a sword. Then I realised that the sword belonged to his missing father, it must be a search for that father. So why did the memory of his mother keep intruding into the action? It all became clear when… but I mustn’t give that away. You will have to read the book.

Other character’s mothers disappeared long ago. One in particular, I still have to learn about (sorry – I’m an author – aren’t I supposed to make it up?). There is another who I sometimes wonder about what she did to her son to make him the way he is.

This has set off several chains of thought. It certainly adds more back story to my writing, which can only help in making memorable characters. Everyone had a mother. They must have had an influence on their child, even if only by their absence.

Good news on the writing front. I managed 8,003 words last week. This takes the total for the first draft of Book 2 past 77k. The end is in sight.

But progress may pause for a while. The edit on Book 1 is due back. Wish me luck.

A view of the garden on a sunny Mothering Sunday.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers, everywhere.

 

 

 

Memories – coming and going.

As I suspected, it’s been a busy week. I managed 4,475 words. Since I only found time to write on three days, I don’t think I did too badly.

The first two days were fine, 1,026 and 1,014. Tuesday morning I had a dentists appointment and was unable eat any lunch. Still numb, I had to pick up an elderly relative for a hospital appointment, at a hospital an hour’s drive away. It was a minor outpatients procedure, so there was a lot of waiting around. I don’t mind that – plenty of time to read! On this occasion though the Elderly Relative suffers from memory problems. I couldn’t read because every five minutes I had to explain where we were and why we were there, where we had come from and where we would be returning to etc, etc, etc – for five hours, including the short break while ER had the operation. Tired and hungry, I was wiped out for the rest of the day.

It is terrible watching someone you know gradually disappear, but at the same time interesting to witness what goes and what remains. ER has been in a care home for over a year, but every day is new because they have no memory of the time they have been there. Sometimes ER gets agitated, usually in the afternoon. We thought it was due to tiredness, but no. It was straight after lunch and ER insisted they had to “look after the children”. Eventually we worked out that ER had, a long time ago, worked as a school “dinner lady” – I don’t suppose such a job exists any more –  someone who had to look after / entertain / read to the children after their lunch, until they were handed back to the teachers. Why had ER remembered this particular job, performed for a short time, over fifty years ago?

What has this got to do with writing? It started me thinking about point of view and the unreliable narrator. How would someone with memory problems view the action in a book?

To continue. When I did manage to do some reading, it was on my Kindle. It was a book I had purchased a while ago, perhaps it had been on special offer, or I liked the cover. When I decided to read it, I noticed that Kindle thought I had already read it – 100%. I didn’t remember reading it, perhaps I had accidentally clicked on the final page. The first few pages looked familiar – perhaps I had read them and then got interrupted. I scrolled forward to something I didn’t recognise and continued. As I read I knew that I had read it before, but at no time did I know what came next. Was it a bad book? No. It was the first of a series and I have downloaded the next book. Was I distracted by something else (my own book?) at the time. I don’t know, because I don’t remember.

Another example. I mentioned last week that I might discuss the second series of The Last Kingdom that has just started. I have read most of Bernard Cornwell’s books. The ones in this series I read as they came out. I watched this first episode. I didn’t recognise the story at all. It must be the film makers messing up the plot, I thought. It annoyed me, so I looked up the book – the TV is onto the third book “The Lords of the North“. So far the TV is sticking to the book. I “know” I have read this book, why have I forgotten it? Perhaps it is because Bernard Cornwell has written a lot of books. It was first published in 2008; a lot of books have passed under my bridge since then. Of course it might be that I hadn’t actually read that book.

Before I become too worried and join ER in the care home, another example of memory.

A new character has entered my book. I have been thinking about her since I started (yes, I know I don’t plan, but…) and have been dropping hints about her – she is slightly mysterious and I don’t even have a name for her yet. I was thinking about her and her part in the plot, while watching TV – as you do – and two ideas collided. I realised that anyone reading my book would think I had based her on the character in a fairy story. I hadn’t intended to. Had I plucked from some genetic memory? These tales are very old? Or had I just read, or had read to me, too many fairy stories when I was young?

Writing is strange. Where do our ideas come from?

Don’t forget to come back next week to find out how my writing is going.

Axes, Wolves and Underpants

Those of us who write historical fiction must research. We are told we should spend a lot of time in research, then forget most of it, using it as background to take our readers into the everyday life of our characters. It is small details that can do that – the sort of small details that a “real” expert of the period will notice. You must not get them wrong.

I am not a historian, just someone who reads a lot of books. Or is that the definition of a historian? Let us just say that I have no official qualifications. I tend to do my research as it’s needed – on Wikipedia in an emergency. My problem is that I get caught up in the details, thinking to deeply about things.

Some recent examples:

I have been watching the recent television series 1966 – A Year to Conquer England. It is not a bad series although tending towards the habit of most historical programs nowadays of telling you what they are going to say, then saying it – several times and in different ways, finishing up with telling you what they have just said. All interspersed with random battle scenes. It has good presenters, experts and some well-known actors.

What worries me are the axes – big axes. I’m not complaining about the size, or how they are used in battle. My question is: what do you do with them when you are not using them? Contrary to the popular idea, the Anglo-Saxons, or Vikings were not fighting all the time. I suppose if you relaxing at home you might hang your axe on the wall, or prop it in the corner. Harald Hardrada in the 1066 program seems to carry his the whole time, threatening everyone with it, or hanging it over his shoulder. Does he take it to bed with him?

What did the average axe wielder do when, for example, he was travelling. Did he carry it in one hand all the time? I suppose if he was riding a horse, he might hang it from the saddle. The thing that worries me – axes are sharp (they have to be if you need to chop someone’s head off at a moments notice.) Swords are sharp, so are knives and seaxes, they all have their own scabbard. Do axes have a scabbard? What do they look like? I have never seen one. They must have had a way of protecting the blade, from weather, inquisitive fingers of small children, etc.

These are the sort of things that keep me awake at night.

Another thing is underwear, men’s underwear. I understand they might wear a loin cloth of a type of boxer short called braies. I have spent a lot of time wondering about this – and not just imagining my  main character wearing them, wet after a quick swim in a river. But enough of that!

If your average Anglo-Saxon warrior was going on a journey, did he pack an extra pair? Did he change them regularly; perhaps wash them out and hung them in front of the camp fire to dry. It’s never shown in the films or TV programs.

Perhaps I should mention here that a new series of The Last Kingdom, starts this week. I shall probably be commenting here next week, or read what I wrote about the first series here and here. From what I’ve seen on the trailers, it hasn’t improved. If I spot any braies I’ll let you know, but I don’t think Uhtred wears them.

Then there are the wolves. Recently I have been looking up the size of their feet, and did you know how interesting their dropping are? If anyone knows how to rip out a wolf’s throat with your bare hands, please let me know.

Finally, this weeks word count is 6,886. I would have reached 7,000 if I hadn’t had to stop and watch the Rugby.

I’ve got a lot on this week, so I’m not sure how I’ll much I’ll manage – probably more if I stopped worrying about the details.

The Reluctant Author – or How to publish without really trying.

Nowadays there are many different ways to publish a book. Some are obvious, others are not.

The old, traditional way is to write your book, find a friendly agent, which could take any time from today to never. Your agent will then find you a publisher and you, the writer can sit back and get on with writing your next book. Translations, films, etc appear as if by magic.

The second way is to self-publish. Originally this cost you a lot of money and was called Vanity Publishing. Proper publishers and readers alike looked down on you.
It still costs a lot of money, but you have more control over the process. It also takes a lot of time and effort, that you would prefer to spend on writing. This is the route that I am attempting to navigate.

There is a third way, a very different way. It doesn’t cost you anything, apart from time – a very long time.

You start it by leaving school, about the age of 16. You start work at a local site run by the Post Office (then part of the Civil Service) as an apprentice. You work your way up the ranks until you retire as Station Manager. You are interested in history, over the years you have collected pictures and information about your place of work. You continue to research, visit the National Archives, Post Office Archives and BT Archives. (Because your government-owned company has been privatised over the years.) Shortly after your retirement, the site is closed, developers move in to build thousands of houses.

b6muau9ceaaplvjYou don’t want the history to be lost. You offer your services as unofficial historian. You give talks, you suggest names for roads. You are invited to the opening of a new gallery at the Science Museum and find that the Queen gives a speech, and sends her first tweet, in front of equipment from “your” site.

A vital component of this process is to be cursed with a nagging wife, who continually asks when you are going to build a website or write a book. You write a book, but just for your own benefit. You don’t want to be bothered with anything else. The developers want to sell houses, they build a website. They give you space to tell the world about your history. Finally they offer to publish your book. They pay for it to be edited. They pay for it to be printed. You don’t want to be bothered with sales or income tax, all the profits can go to charity.

p1180315Which is why we now have a hall cluttered with boxes, and I am slightly miffed at being beaten into publication by a Reluctant Author.

You can find out about the book here

If you have ever travelled up the M1, close to the junction with the M6 sometime between 1926 and 2007 and noticed the twelve tall masts – or the red lights that shone at night, and wondered what was going on there. Now you can find out.

For anyone else thinking about this method of publication, you need a lot of time – and to have started fifty years ago.

 

 

For those of you keeping tabs on my writing total, this week I managed 6,210 words. I have been busy thinking about covers, but I’ll leave that for another time.