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.

 

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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.

So, how is your book selling?

I get asked this question often nowadays. After all the excitement of publication and launch, that period when I learnt to bring up the subject of “My Book” at the slightest provocation, however tenuous, things have got back to normal.

This means that everyone knows I have a book out, so they ask me how it’s doing – I DON’T KNOW! I have access to a graph that tells me my Amazon Bestseller Rank, which is not worth talking about, although last Thursday the Kindle edition leapt 1,045,242 places to 56,989th. Did it mean someone had bought a copy, several people had bought copies, or a million people hadn’t bought anything else? Who knows?

The next question is: “How are you getting on with the next book?” I can answer that question, bore the questioner to tears with the ups and downs of book two and three. But a recent question got me thinking. “Do you get your current book muddled up with the first one?” The simple answer is: “Of course not”. I suspect that any writer, or even a reader would say the same. My questioner was neither, one of those “I sometimes read a book on holiday.” people.

I am no expert, with just one book under my belt, but I have found that when a book is finished, it is in the past. Yes, I may look back to check someone’s name, or the colour of someone’s hair, but confuse the plot? I don’t think so.

I have said, many times, I am not a planner, but I know the basic outline of what I want to write. It starts with one scene, what happens after that, what has to happen to reach that scene. I imagine each scene. Where is it? When is it? Which characters are there? I make adjustments, look at it again. Nothing is written down, all this happens in my brain, like watching a favourite film, over and over, until I know every word, every gesture. Eventually it becomes so big, so important, that it is impossible to think of anything else. It has to be released, like a balloon inflated to the point of explosion, a river backed up behind a dam.

So I write it down. The floodgate is opened. The pressure is released, the balloon empties. And my brain stands ready for the next “big scene”.

Not all writing is like this. Most of it is the hard slog from one scene to the next, but still I have to work out what is coming next, even if that is just a journey from  here to there, how far, what’s the weather like. It usually crystallizes overnight, so I am ready for the next session. I have discovered that it is good to have these decisions already made I stop writing. Sometimes it goes wrong.

Last week it happened. It was a good week for writing, not much else on. On Friday I wrote over 2,000 words. I had reached my weekly 7k target (bar 5 words) with a day to go. I had nothing else to do on Saturday, I was on a winning streak! Saturday came, I sat down at the computer. Nothing. What came next? I knew where I was heading, but not how to get there. In my mammoth session of Friday, I had passed the point of what I had planned. I was lost. I eventually worked out that I was bored, and if I was bored my reader would be bored as well. I needed to cut the scene at that point and jump ahead, but where to? I couldn’t decide – my brain was empty – I needed to work it out!

Then I remembered, the book has two threads. It was time to switch to the other story – a different character, a different point of view. I hadn’t thought through this scene, but I knew roughly what was to happen. Two people started to talk, another joined the conversation. I reached 600 words, I knew what would happen next, so I stopped to watch the Boat Race – Cambridge won, easily. It had been a good day.

Sunday, of course was a beautiful spring day, spent in the garden, removing dead foliage and clearing brambles. Gradually my brain started filling again and on Monday I sat down and wrote 1300 words.

And the plot line I abandoned? I know where I will pick it up again – when it’s ready.

Spring Garden – Distraction or Inspiration?

More about covers

Another book launch! Nothing for years, then two come along at (nearly) the same time.

For those few who have read Bright Sword and said they want to read the next in the series, I’m afraid this book isn’t it. But please, if you liked it, could I ask you to post a review? Here.

By coincidence, this book also has an orange cover and has a long thin pointy object on the front. It is the latest in a series of booklets on the history of Rugby, published by the Rugby Local History Research Group. In fact this is the tenth in the series – the first was published in 1975. They are all regularly reprinted and all are available locally. They are not on-line (Actually a couple are listed, but not available.)

The books are about 70 pages and contain articles written by members of the Group. It is a very small group, which is why it tales so long to produce the books. We have done books on Rugby in the Victorian period, during ww1 and ww2 and the 2oth century. But mostly they contain a variety of subjects – whatever the member finds interesting. Memories of childhood, a local industry or some incident that has caught the eye in the local newspaper.

The articles are passed around for comment/editing and collected together,  they are proof read, a few pictures are added to fill any awkward gaps and sent to a local printer, together with the cover design.

How do we design the cover?

Each book is a different colour, depending on what card the printer has available. This time the only colours we haven’t already used were orange and a bright pink. Everyone preferred orange, the next will have to be pink! Sometimes we have a big argument on what picture to use – everyone wants a picture from their own article. Only a few are suitable as it has to make a distinctive silhouette. Why not have a “proper” picture? Because it’s always been done this way! For this book, there was an article about the R.C. Church of St Maries, in Rugby. Someone had a decent photograph, no problems with copyright and no one objected. It was turned into a silhouette, and the title was added. Job done.

It was all free – unless you count the time taken by the poor person who has to do all this – me!

Compare it with the cover for Bright Sword. I employed a proper designer. I made a few suggestions, she produced samples. We discussed them and I made a final decision. Minor changes were later made by the publisher, but that was it. No other “authors” to fight it out with. Price – a lot more, but you get what you pay for.

In the end, the Aspects of Rugby book was all done in a rush, because I was giving a talk in the library and we wanted to use it to launch the book. The talk was “Rugby: Development of a Town”. It was part of the BBC Civilisations Festival – we might have got a few more people if the Library had thought to put that on the posters, or put said posters somewhere people could see them! No Anglo-Saxon Warriors this time. Just me and a projector, although Anglo-Saxons were mentioned (was it founded by them or was it earlier?). I didn’t have the courage to mention “my” book. But we did sell a few copies of “our” book. In fact I think we sold more copies on the day, than I did, probably because it was cheaper.

If you are interested in the book, there are details on the website. Or there would be, but it doesn’t seem to be working at the moment. And guess who has to fix that?

Not surprising I find it difficult to find time to write. Around 6,500 words written. sounds good, but that’s over two weeks. I managed over 2,000 on one day, so I can do it when I try – and don’t have anything else to do!

Let’s talk about the Weather!

There’s been a lot of weather to talk about recently and since I couldn’t think of anything else to write this week – it has to be the weather.

Garden under snow – view from back window.

We’ve had some snow, did anyone notice? Even better, did anyone not notice? You couldn’t get away from it – not just the variable white layer outside the door – it was everywhere; Twitter, Facebook, Television, Radio. All the usual stories of cars stuck on the motorway and reporters standing beside artistic drifts, describing how deep, cold, long it was compared with the last time it happened. Then there were the films of dogs doing funny things in it and cats staring out windows at it – I’m not a fan of cats, but they seem quite sensible about that sort of thing.

I have memories of earlier bad winters. I have been told about my mother’s chilblains in ’47. I remember having a bike for Christmas in ’63 and not being able to ride it until nearly Easter. I even remember a white Christmas – was it ’81?

This disaster/Beast from the East lasted three days, or was it four? Then it thawed and the water pressure went down slightly – we knew it did because Seven-Trent kept ringing us up to tell us so. They started handing out bottled water in Tesco Car Park. It was on the News!

How did I survive? To be fair, we didn’t have it that bad. All the main roads had been gritted and, once we ventured out, they were clear. We live on a hill – not a big hill, but it faces north and isn’t important enough to be gritted. If it snows we can usually get out, but coming back up is sometimes difficult.

Everyone was screaming, “Don’t go out unless your journey is necessary”. What is necessary? A Local History Group Meeting? I’m leader – what would they do without me? Writing Class? I wanted to go, but was it still running? I risked the hill and it was, although only half the usual people were there. The car slid a bit coming up the hill, so I decided I didn’t really need to go to Sainsburys (I sent the husband out to the local Coop, with a team of huskies, to fetch bread and milk.)

How did people survive before we all became so civilised? Did they open the door one winter morning, encounter a snow drift and task, “Will the horse make it up the hill to that meeting I don’t really need to go to?” No they slammed the door and broke out the mead (hoping, of course that there was enough wood to keep the fire going!). Yes, some people probably did die of cold, but at least it was expected. Winter tends to be cold and sometimes it snows. Good, lets sit around and tell stories; make beautiful poems about winter. Read some here.

I think that nowadays we are insulated (well insulated?) from the changing seasons. We expect to do whatever we want, whenever we want to. Eat anything, whether it is in season or not; strawberries in mid-winter, apples in spring (did you know there are still plenty of British apples in the shops at the moment?), Ice-cream in summer. Would we appreciate them more if, just occasionally, we couldn’t have them whenever we want? No, there’d be a riot, someone would set up a petition!

At least the weather gave me an excuse to stay indoors and write.

I managed 5,205 words last week. It was hard work, and it’s absolute rubbish – most of it was about the weather.