With Aethelflaed in Tamworth

I have never been to Tamworth before. I don’t know why, it’s only about 30 miles away, straight up Watling Street. Perhaps because I’ve never had a reason to go. This weekend, there was a very good reason, it was Aethelfest. This was a celebration of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, who died in the town 1100 years ago, in 918.

I’m not sure why a town would celebrate the death of a famous visitor – not exactly good publicity. Although it can happen (Maldon, 991?).

So who was Aethelflaed? For anyone who has missed all the publicity, she was the daughter (and eldest child) of Alfred the Great and like him, she fought the Danes, driving them out of Mercia. She was not a Queen, because her husband, Aethelred (no, not that one!) was not a King. Who he was is a mystery and one of the subjects that was covered at the event, organised by Tamworth Literary Festival – Aethelflaed and Women’s Worlds: Reconstructing Early Women’s Voices.

Statue of Aethelflaed and the young King Athelstan by Tamworth Castle

I had seen this advertised some time before and had been attracted by the fact that two very good authors were taking part, both of whom have written about “my” period. Since it was held only a few days after my birthday, I knew I had to go.

I allowed plenty of time for the journey, and arrived an hour early, finding a car park right next to the venue. Plenty of time to have a look round the town. There were plenty of boards so I learned something of the history of the town and ended up at the castle. unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit but wandered round the Castle Grounds where there was an Anglo-Saxon encampment and the display of a colourful Aetheflaed mosaic.

Aethelfest Mosaic

Entrance to Tamworth Castle and floral Anglo-Saxon warrior

The Castle was Norman but Tamworth was important long before, as the capital of Mercia, home of King Penda and King Offa. It was sacked by the Danes in 874 and rebuilt  and fortified by Aethelflaed in 913. I would have liked to have spent more time exploring but I had to get back for the main attraction.

After an introduction by Dr Sara Read, the speaker was Annie Whitehead. Annie has written several books, one, “Alvar the Kingmaker”, actually includes a character I have written about – although from a vastly different viewpoint. Today she was talking about Aethelflaed, whose life she has written about in “To be a Queen”. She told us about Aethelflaed and how little information there is actually is about her. Was it because she was a successful woman in a man’s would, or was it for political reasons? The Kings of Wessex were eager to take over Mercia and when Aethelflaed died, leaving only a daughter to succeed her, she was quickly “rescued” by Aethflaed’s brother, King Edward and never seen again.

Annie has cleverly taken what is known and woven it into a plausible story, interpreting the facts to fit what might be what happened. I recommend her latest book “Cometh the Hour” about King Penda, an interesting view of a king who is usually the antagonist in other books set in this earlier, 7th century, period. It provides an explanation of the burial of the Staffordshire Hoard. Annie also has a non-fiction book coming out in September, “Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom“. I look forward to reading it.

The second speaker was treading on dangerous ground. Marianne Whiting is a Viking – or perhaps I should say a writer about Vikings. Born in Sweden, she was captured by a local while on a course at Birmingham University and has been held hostage ever since. She explained how the Vikings were not (just) the rapists and pillagers we know and love, but traders, merchants and innocent settlers. She described the difficulties of writing about writing in a time when beliefs and customs were very different from today. Should she leave out descriptions of animal sacrifice that might shock the modern reader? She doesn’t and her books, the Shieldmaiden Viking Trilogy are all the better for it. We are immersed in ordinary farming life of settlers in the English Lake District. Sigrid Kveldulfsdaughter is a shieldmaiden. She fights for her land, her family and her honour. Politics intervene, her uncle is Eirik Haraldson (Bloodaxe) sometime King of Jorvik over the period of the books. I had read the first two, “Shieldmaiden” and “To Save a Kingdom” and was particularly interested to buy the third “Honour is All” as it deals with the same period, and some of the same characters, that I am struggling with. I have read and finished it (which is why I didn’t write this blog yesterday) and it was everything I wished for, with a wonderful ending.

The third and final speaker was Dr Jennifer Evans talking about medical treatment of medieval women.  Her speciality is the Early Modern Period but she spoke to us about a little known woman called Trotula said to have been the first female professor of medicine in eleventh- or twelfth-century Salerno, who wrote a textbook on women’s medicine. This was a very amusing talk about some of the “cures” for various ailments, mostly of women but sometimes men. The main method of administration was by fumigation, which meant that the doctor didn’t need to look at or touch the woman at all.

The speakers were followed by questions and then a buffet lunch. There was plenty of time to chat and buy books.

Viking and Saxon in harmony. Marianne Whiting and Annie Whitehead signing books.

It was an entertaining and educational  event. I wish I had made more of an effort to investigate more of the whole Aethelfest experience, but it was just too hot. I retired to my air conditioned car and returned home, to read my books in the garden. Thanks to the authors for giving up their time and the Tamworth Literary Festival for organising it and of course Tamworth Borough Council for organising Aethelfest

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Where do you go to, my darlings?

As a writer of fiction, you make things up. That’s not really a surprise, but the fact is that those things become real, at least to the author. To the reader as well, I hope, but what happens if they never reach the reader?

You invent a world, and the events in it. There is a plot and you must decide what happens next. You need a scene. It must continue from the scene before and lead on to the one after. You decide who will appear in the scene and what they do. How does it start and how does it end? You test snatches of conversation, imagine the venue – should you add some description? Eventually, when you have it complete in your head, you write it down. At least that is how I do it.

You continue with the next scene, and the next. You end up with a book. You start to edit. You rearrange words, delete some, correct the spelling and get rid of those words that you use too much. You read it through, aloud if possible. You edit it again, you send it to beta readers and you make changes – perhaps.

By now you have read it so often, you know the book almost as well as your own life. The memories of your characters have become your memories; a part of your life.

Then you employ an Editor!

An editor, if he is any good, will tell you what is wrong with your book. He will tell you to change this, delete that. A character is delaying the plot, another needs more of the action. What does he want? Why is she doing that? You will want to ignore the advice. Must I really get rid of that scene, that beautiful scene that says exactly what I wanted to say, the beautiful description, the words that will tear at your reader’s heart? Yes, you must kill your darlings!

But where do they go, those memories? Do they disappear in a puff of smoke? Perhaps they remain, if the reason they were killed was lack of space, they remain as back story, part of your character’s life. But some die completely. The plot is changed, a relationship is destroyed, a life takes an unexpected turn, characters merge to become someone new.

Perhaps they will be recycled, names changed, in another book. But even if the characters forget, I will not. It may be that when I have written more books, the “might have been” scenes will fade away. For now, they linger and I mourn them.

I have been rewriting, it has been a long process, although I hadn’t realised it had been so long since I posted anything here. I am close to the end – an end which I have now identified – that was one of the problems.

Now I must put it all back together. I haven’t checked the word count, I know it is large. There will be more editing. Will I have to remove more “darlings”? I hope not, I don’t think I can stand the anguish.

Editing in the garden

How much longer?

I’m sorry that this post is a bit late.

I have been writing, but the more I hurry to get to the end of book three, the longer it gets. I have been trying to finish this first draft. I thought I would finish last week, with plenty of time to catch up with other things before I get book two back from my editor.

I knew I had been doing well, with a couple of 2k+ days. I also knew, because I was feeling so tired. But there was not far to go. I was disappointed when I got to the end of the week (Saturday, for working purposes) and hadn’t finished, the disappointment cleared when I totted up the totals and found I’d written 10,267 words! In seven days! A record for me. I would polish off the rest on Sunday, plus the blog post I had planned.

Real life intervened. Saturday evening my mother was taken into hospital – nothing serious – we went on Sunday to pick her up. Several unproductive hours later, there was still no sign of when they would let her go, so we came home. There we found a message from our son. He had broken his leg and was in hospital – a different hospital. Since he is of an age not to require the presence of a mother at his bedside, we didn’t have to rush out to visit. As you can imagine, I was not in much of a condition to do much writing.

Those things I was going to catch up with, drifted.

I managed a healthy 1,000+ yesterday and (wow) 2,200 today. I am still exhausted and still not finished. My target is 90k, and I am now on 108k.

Am I writing rubbish? I don’t know, but it keeps pouring out. I don’t want to turn it off – what if I can’t start it again.

Thank you for listening to me. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible – I hope.

Take a deep breath

If you have been following this blog for a while, you might have noticed that I have been having problems with book two of the Byrhtnoth Chronicles.

In the first place I didn’t intend to write a series. Bright Sword emerged from a writing course, it grew and by the time I finished it, I knew there was more of Byrhtnoth’s story to tell – He had a long life and he was still in his teens. Book two came easily, I enjoyed writing it. I tidied it up and sent it to a couple of brave volunteers for a Beta read. I was told it was better than the first book I was pleased, Bright Sword had been published in a bit of a rush, and was not entirely happy with it. The Beta readers made various comments, on different parts of book two.

Meanwhile I had started book three. I say started but in fact I began in the middle – an experiment in POV. I forced myself to stop at what I thought was the end and went back to the start. But where was the start? Book two had continued directly from the end of Bright Sword, but for some reason I couldn’t get it to work properly this time. I carried on writing, from a later “beginning” and have nearly finished the first draft, joining the two halves together.

I have continued to worry about the beginning: Steal the end of book two for the start of book three? Ignore what happened between books two and three and start later? But that bit of plot was vital! What I needed was someone to tell me what to do. An Editor.

I was wary. I had already had problems with an editor. Where did I find the right one? Someone was recommended – they were too busy writing their own books. Someone else was mentioned, but another person said they were expensive. Time passed and I became desperate. Then I found someone. I won’t say who or how, in case it all goes pear-shaped, but I think it is going well.

I sent off my manuscript, together with synopses of Books one, three (so far) and four (ideas) and a list of what was troubling me. I wanted a basic Editors Report. What I got was fantastic; it addressed every point I had raised, in detail. It told me what was good (thank you) and what was wrong (help). Horrible as some of the suggestions were, this favorite scene had to go (too much like something in book one) and that was too unbelievable, I knew they were right.

I took a deep breath and thought about it, for several days. If I take that bit out, what do I put in its place? Yes, I can shorten/lengthen that piece. That scene is just waiting to be filled out. I came up with a new outline. It is better but there are problems – I still can’t work out where it ends! The Editor has ideas, so I have signed up for a full Structural Report. I’ll report later on how it goes.

I have now recovered from that tornado of emotion – fear and elation. It is as if I had finished a large jigsaw puzzle. Every piece was in place, but the picture was wrong. Someone has taken the puzzle and thrown it up in the air. Where will it come down and in how many pieces? All I know is that it needed to be done and I will lean a lot from putting it together again. Wish me luck.

Another good thing that came out of this shake up. Despite, or because of, spending all that time thinking, I still managed 6290 words of book three this week. All that’s left to do is the final (middle) scene – the battle. I feel I have just been through one, which may be a help.

I’ll let you know next week.

 

Where do you get your ideas?

With apologies to the Rugby Cafe Writers group, whose subject this was at their latest meeting, where do I get my ideas?

Writing historical fiction, I am constrained by what was actually happening in the period the book is set. The advantage of writing about the tenth century means that there is not a lot of known facts to contend with. In fact the plot outline is provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Book three is set in the year A.D.948 and according to this source, these are the events:

Research – £2.99 from Oxfam according to the label.

A. D. 948. King Eadred ravaged all Northumbria, because they had taken Eric for their king.
In that ravaging the minster at Ripon was burnt down, that St. Wilferth had built.
When the king was going homewards, the force in York overcame the king’s troops left behind in Castleford, and there was much slaughter.
Then the king was so enraged that he wanted to turn back and destroy that land, and everything in it.
The Northumbrians perceived this and gave up Eric; they made amends for that deed with king Eadred.

This is quite a lot to work with. Apparently two years later, in A.D. 950 absolutely nothing happened!

How was Byrhtnoth involved in these events? Apart from (probably) being alive at the time, nothing is known. So in the tradition of most historical novelists, Bernard Cornwall and Uhtred, etc, I must put him in the heart of the action. For some reason, that I don’t remember, I started writing the second part of the book first, then went back to the start. I am nearing the end (or what will be the middle). This week Byrhtnoth arrived in Ripon.

I have never been to Ripon, so I consulted my other sources (Wikipedia and Google Maps). One important fact I discovered was the Minster, which was burnt down, was in fact built of stone – one of the first Anglo-Saxon buildings built of that material. How do you burn down a stone building? I had a lot of thinking to do: What did it look like? How was it furnished? How would I burn it – if I wanted to do such a thing. I think I came up with a reasonable solution. You will have to wait until the book is published, to find out how.

All I have to do now is describe how Byrhtnoth survives Eric Bloodaxe and the great slaughter of Castleford and the first draft will be finished.

I am now past 88k words and last week I wrote 7,709 – I’m on schedule!

Back to Ancient Greece

I have recently been watching Troy: Fall of a City, the BBC series showing on Saturday evenings, based on Homer’s Iliad  It has had mixed reviews and after a couple of episodes I nearly gave up, for the usual BBC problem of lack of light and lack of audible speech. By the time everyone emerged into daylight, I was at a loss as to who was who. I had to search my memory for the main characters, others were lost to me for the rest of the series – yes, I stuck it out.

I think my love of Ancient Greece comes from reading the books of Mary Renault – including The King must Die and The Bull from the Sea. For a long time it was my subject of choice – too many books to remember now, and probably many more than those set in the Anglo-Saxon period! I preferred The Odyssey to The Iliad. I think you do when you’re young, all those adventures with monsters and magic, and a happy ending. The Iliad was more complicated, with its theme of men killing each other for honour and revenge. I could never remember who killed who and in what order.

If I was to understand the series, I needed help. Did I have anything on my Kindle that was relevant. I must admit I buy books on special offer that I think I might read when I’m in the mood. The first I found was The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which I see I purchased in December 2017. (Not that long ago, I must have bought it after watching The Handmaid’s Tale.) This was part of a series retelling of  Greek myths. Penelope was the wife of Odysseus, who waited 20 years for her husband to return. In this version of the story Odysseus doesn’t come out well. Was he bewitched by beautiful goddesses or just delayed in a bar somewhere, and does it really matter? Penelope is still in Hades, a very boring place, where she meets people she used to know – Helen is still surrounded by admiring men. Penelope tells her story from her own point of view. She is interrupted by a chorus; the twelve maids killed on the return of Odysseus commentate on the story and on their hard lives. This is in the form of verse in different narrative styles. The book is clever, entertaining and thought provoking.

The second book I read was The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Purchased in 2015). This is the story of Achilles, told by Patroclus, his friend. Patroclus the son of a minor king, admits that he has nothing in his favour. He is not good looking, he has no talent for sport or fighting, and he is not too bright. He is ignored and despised. When he accidentally kills anther boy, he is exiled, to the court of King Peleus. He joins a group of boys, united in their admiration of the king’s son, Achilles. Achilles is everything Patroclus is not; handsome, talented at everything. His mother is a sea nymph, Thetis and he is destined to become a mythical hero. He spends much time alone, he fights alone because no one can compare to him. It is an interesting portrait. Achilles knows he is the best, it is a fact and he has no need to boast of it. He could be unlikable, but he is so innocent, everyone loves him. One day he notices Patroclus and makes him his only companion, to the disgust of everyone. They grow up together, study in the mountains with Chiron. (There is a beautiful description of the fear of meeting a centaur for the first time.) They fall in love.

When the call to Troy comes, Achilles refuses to go, but his mother insists this is the only way for him to become immortal. She hates Patroclus, suspicious his love tarnishes the glory of her son. Achilles sets sail for Troy and Patroclus with him. In this version, Achilles is the only Greek with fair hair, an interesting twist in the controversial casting of Achilles in the TV version.

There was one thing that worried me as I got further into the book. It is written in the first person in the voice of Patroclus. He is the perfect narrator, always there but never noticed. How would the author cope with his death which, of course comes before that of Achilles? She succeeds, wonderfully, in an imaginative and emotional way.

I am glad that the showing of the not entirely successful television series, drove me to reading these amazing books. The second explained something that I had never understood before; why Achilles behaved the way he did and how magnificent it was.

I also realised how similar the Anglo-Saxon period was to Ancient Greece.

The sense of the gods and how they controlled a man’s life.

The hierarchy of gods and men and how you must obey your superior, in all things.

Finally the strength of a man’s oath, and the dishonour he must experience if he breaks it.

Honour is everything.

Easter Break

A very short post today. More to stop Facebook nagging me than anything else!

Hot Cross Buns, straight from the oven.

I haven’t done much this last week. I have discovered how making hot cross buns stops you writing – make and leave to rise, knead and leave, add crosses and put in oven. Take out of oven and add sugar syrup, leave to cool. Eat. No time to settle down to serious writing.

While procrastinating, I have discovered that Easter is NOT based on the worship of an Anglo-Saxon goddess called Eostre. It was all a guess by Bede.

Easter Bunnies only go back to the nineteenth century. I’m surprised it is as long ago as that – I don’t remember him at all when I was young.

Like the week before, I was getting close to my 7k target, by the end of Friday. But on Saturday I was due to give a tour of the town – 2 o’clock on Saturday afternoon (the afternoon is my usual writing time) The weather forecast was not very good, could I get out of it? The morning was dry, I would have to go. I got ready, I would have to leave the house at 1.30. At 1.25 there was a downpour of rain. I rang the visitor centre. No one had made enquiries for the walk. No one was waiting. They agreed that it was unlikely anyone would turn up. I was free. I sat down and wrote 1700 words.

So, apologies to anyone who really wanted a tour of rain soaked Rugby on Easter Saturday afternoon. Your sacrifice enabled me to smash this weeks target. I had written 8057 words in a week.

I felt so pleased, that I decided to have a day off – it was Easter Sunday after all. I gave myself permission to just sit and read. The fact that the latest book by Matthew Harffy was published that day had absolutely nothing to do with it.

The problem was, I relaxed (well as relaxed as you can be when the slaughter dew is flying in seventh century Northumbria), I started to sneeze, my nose streamed. The cold I had kept at bay by keeping busy had arrived.

By the evening I had a temperature – I must have – that Agatha Christie film on TV can’t have been quiet as confusing and surreal as it appeared to me!

I am writing this with a box of tissues at my side. Should I fight back by trying to write, or return to reading? Having left Beobrand in the middle of a battle, I think I know the answer to that.

Normal service will be returned as soon as possible – probably with a few book reviews.

Happy Easter Monday.