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.

A rose by any other name

After last weeks post about violence, I thought I’d talk about something more gentle.

A garden full of primroses, and leaks

A garden full of primroses, and leeks

No, not flowers, although that is a subject that causes a lot of problems in historical fiction. To take a seasonal example, did they have snowdrops in the 10th century? Perhaps not. What about primroses? They are a common wildflower, judging by the way they spring up everywhere in my garden, so yes,  perhaps. I have a horror of committing a sin like the one I read in one book. Rhododendrons used as Christmas decorations, in Scotland, in – well, lets just say it was later than 1066 but definitely not modern. It spoilt the whole book for me.

To return to the subject, I want to talk about names. I’m sure I’ve mentioned elsewhere about the “foreignness” of Anglo-Saxon names. All those Ethels and Elfs. The question that concerns me now is who has a name and who doesn’t. In general it is straight forward – protagonist, antagonist, friends; good and bad. Love interest, if any. Occasional dogs and horses, they all have names. The servant who steps forward to hold the horse, the neighbour in the mead hall who makes a comment and is never heard from again, the random Viking whose only part is to get killed, preferably more creatively than the last. None of them need to have names.

It’s the characters in between that are the problem. The ones that interact for a scene and never appear again. If you give them all names:
1. Your reader might be looking out for them to reappear.
2. Your limited stock of Anglo-Saxon names diminishes.

I encountered the problem this week. I won’t go into details, but I had a boy, a girl, the girl’s father and the man the girl was supposed to marry. I’m sure most people could invent a useful scene from those characters, probably the same one. I didn’t give them names, but then I tied myself in knots with the he said, she said, the father told the other man. Not to mention the characters who were present who did have names! And the main character didn’t speak the language and was having it all translated for him.

I do make things difficult for myself.

For the time being they remain nameless. It is the first draft, after all, They might all get cut from the final version. Or one or more of them might reappear in a later book and I will have to explain why no-one knows their name. Isn’t writing fun?

As you can probably guess, I’m in a cheerful mood. I wrote 6,288 words this week. Not quite up to target, but good enough considering there were two days I didn’t write anything.

The total now is just over 52k, so I think I can say that I am officially more than halfway through.

Finally, book one, now officially called “Bright Sword” has been sent for a final edit. And, as I write, my cover is being designed.

I am excited. My bank account, on the other hand, doesn’t know what hit it.

Violence – How far do you go?

My books are set in the Anglo-Saxon period. The tenth century was perhaps not quite as “dark” as earlier times – after all Byrhtnoth lived through the reign of Edgar the Peaceful, King of England from 959 to 975. I like to think that he was responsible in some part for that.

In a book about this period readers expert a certain amount of violence, it might be why they read that type of book. Big men with swords, fighting other men with swords, or axes, probably in the shield wall of some major battle. It might even be a battle that is mentioned in history!

I’m afraid I don’t write about that. I knew when I started that I couldn’t write about that. With that confession my potential readership has dropped by 90% but better that, than people are disappointed.

There is violence in my books. Yes, my hero is a big man with a sword – or rather searching for a sword. Yes, he kills people, when necessary. But he has not experienced any big battle. I was expecting that in book two, then I looked in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – no battle in 947 – perhaps next year.

What I want to talk about is violence against women. There have been a lot of complaints about depictions of violence to women, especially on television. Every police drama, thriller etc involves the murder, or attack on, a young, attractive woman. It would seem that the safest person to be nowadays is an elderly person! I don’t tend to read that type of book, but I assume they are the same.

In historical fiction most women appear as the feisty heroine in a romance or as the “love interest” of the hero who fades away when not needed by the plot. And yes, before anyone complains – I know some books aren’t like that.

So, what have I been writing this week? Violence, against a woman.

It took me a long time to work out how to tackle it. Without going into the details. A woman is abducted by nasty men, abused, and then rescued. I wanted to concentrate on the effect this has on all involved, especially my protagonist. It is at the mid-point; it will influence the rest of the book.

I started with the abduction, from the point of view of the woman. I stopped at the point when she realises what is likely to happen to her. I moved to the rescue and describe her appearance to the rescuers. I then carry on, my protagonist doesn’t know if she will live or die (neither does the reader until close to the end – no plot spoilers here!)

I hope I have struck the right compromise. The worst part about it was that I had to live through what she suffered. I had to work out exactly what was done to her, when, and by whom. It was not very nice. I didn’t have much of an appetite for dinner that night.

It is done now. I can carry on with the book.

All this is my excuse for not reaching my target this week (only 5503 words), together with a trip to the hospital with my mother, writing a review, a birthday (not mine) and Valentines Day.

Funnily enough it was on Valentines Day that I wrote that violent scene – and no it has nothing whatsoever to do with the state of my marriage.

Preview – Kin of Cain

Matthew Harffy has written three books in the The Bernicia Chronicles series. They are about Beobrand a young thegn in 7th century Northumbria. You can  read my review of the second in the series, The Cross and the Curse here. The fourth instalment will be published later this year.

kin-of-cainKin of Cain is a novella (86 pages), to be published on 1st March. It is a gobbet of flesh tossed by the author to keep his readers quiet. I had already ordered it, but was offered a ARC for review. It is a prequel to the main series, set several years earlier. Beobrand’s elder brother Octa, is new to the household of King Edwin and desperate to prove himself.

As usual with this author, it is straight into the action. A cheerful winter’s night in the mead hall is interrupted by a scream. It is a simple tale, one of the oldest. An invincible monster roams the land. The king sends his best warriors to destroy it. Octa is pleased to be chosen as one of them, he soon changes his mind. The trail takes them through a mysterious, mist covered marsh, to towering cliffs and thundering seas. Will they catch the monster? Is it an animal, or something else. Can it be killed? Who will die and who survive?

The only fault, for me, is the use of the term “slaughter-dew”, an Old English  kenning. It suggests a bath oil for shield maidens. But with so much blood spilt, another word is definitely needed. It sprinkles on the ground, it drips from torn flesh and smears the blades of weapons.

I loved the twist at the end, where connections are made and loose ends tied.

This is a great book, to be consumed on a winter’s evening in your favourite chair, perhaps with a glass of red. A distraction from the never-ending news of pontificating politicians.

Better still, huddle close to the hearth in your lord’s hall. Sip your mead as the scop recites this song of heroes.

But beware. What is that screaming, out in the winter darkness?

A Proper Writer?

I am starting to feel like a proper writer. This week was a milestone. Another writer – a proper author, with a proper publisher, contacted me to ask if I would like an advance review copy of his new novella. I mentioned, last week, that I found it convenient to read shorter books to fit in the writing. It was a book that I wanted to read and had already ordered, so of course I said yes.

I have not found time to look at it yet, but look out for my review in a few days. Of course if it’s a load of rubbish, I won’t mention it again. But I’m sure it won’t be.

We had a hard disc failure this week which delayed things. Not the main computer, but an external drive where I keep copies of all my photographs. Luckily everything was backed up elsewhere, but there was a lot of installing a new drive and copying everything back. Not my job, apart from checking everything was back to normal, but it still took up time. No writing was lost!

Another reason for thinking myself a writer, is the fact that the writing is spilling over into real life. Or perhaps my inability to keep it in its place is a sign that I am not a proper writer. Yesterday afternoon I was writing, trying to reach this week’s target. I had to stop to watch the rugby. I hadn’t bothered with the Italy/Ireland match – who would? (Apologies to any Irish or Italian readers) but I had to see the Wales/England match. As I watched, my mind got distracted with what I should have been writing. I was imagining Byrhtnoth swinging an axe, about to kill a really nasty character, when I realised a man in a white shirt was hurtling towards the try line. I shouted. I shouted very loudly. My husband was nearly blown off the sofa! I don’t know where it came from – Byrhtnoth I suppose – he would be an England supporter. Anyway, with his help England beat the nasty little Welsh. (whoops just lost my Welsh readers.)

On this subject, rugby, not the Welsh, I find it useful for finding inspiration for battles. Surely a rugby scrum is the nearest you can get to an Anglo-Saxon shield wall? It also helps with characters. I know what Byrhtnoth looks like. For a long time I searched for a man I could point to and say – that is him – the actor that would play him in the film version, whatever.

I found him on the rugby pitch. Unfortunately he plays for Scotland – not too bad – I support them if they are not playing England.

Richie Gray is the right height (6ft 9in), his hair is bleached rather than natural blond and his eyes, as far as I can tell are not blue, but he has the right physical look.

I’d better go now, the match is about to start.

Finally, word count this week: 5,836 plus 1004 exercise makes 6,840. Not quite 7,000 but near enough.