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.


Book Review – The Mercian Brexit

I have discovered a way to keep up with my writing and have time to read as well – read shorter books!

mercian-brexitI recently noticed this short story, subtitled An Anglo-Saxon Short Story of 957, by prolific author M J Porter. How could I resist? It was only £1.19 on Amazon and took only an hour or so to read.

The year is 957. After generations of fighting, England is one country, but King Eadred is dead. The only heirs are his nephews, brothers Eadwig and Edgar.

Eadwig is the eldest and becomes king. He has been brought up in Wessex and he and his advisers favour the south; the former kingdom of Mercia and the rest of the north are useful only to pay taxes and their needs are ignored.

Edgar was brought up by the Ealdorman of East Anglia, he is known in the north and Mercia would prefer him to be their king.

Will England be split once more? Can two kings rule?

This story brings to prominence a single event that will affect the whole future of the country, with more than half an eye on current events.
Eadred tries to make his currency the only one used, Mercia uses its own version.
Haakon, King of Norway visits to talk about trade deals.

I am glad to say that Byrhtnoth gets a mention – his decision will be a major factor in what happens.

The book appears to have been written in a hurry. At one point Edgar’s age is given as sixteen, later he is fourteen. Otherwise, it is an informative glimpse into a little known incident in history and proof that nothing, however important it seems at the time, is ever new.

Finally, to anyone who is interested, my writing last week was on target – 7,167 words over the week. I’m past 35k now, although some will have to be re-written – I brought in a major character who I discovered was in Ireland at the time!

Plotter or Pantser, or something in between?

When anyone asks me how I write, I always say I’m a pantser. I have an aversion to charts and post it notes. I have learned to trust my characters to lead me where they want to go (or don’t want to go) so why fight them?

I think this is because I am still a novice writer, I had no prior experience. The first book evolved from a series of exercises. I pasted it together into some sort of a story and thought that was it. I knew nothing – it was just the start. As it tuned out, the original first ending  lay at the exact halfway point of the final version.

Many rewrites later I know my characters well, I understand what they want – better than they do themselves. Where would they go next? I had to do some sort of planning.

A series of scenes evolved in my head, a bit of research and they could be placed on a timeline. This scene has to take place in autumn, so it has to come after that one. Those characters will come back – whoops that one can’t, he died. What new characters do I need? What will their names be? Are they historical people? In which case I’m stuck with the name. But now I’ve got two people with the same name. Can I get away with spelling them differently? They will never meet, perhaps I can trust my readers to tell the difference?

When I started book 2 I had this series of scenes. I knew what happened at the start. I really needed a battle round about the centre – check the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to see who Byrhtnoth would be fighting. Oh dear, there was a truce, no battles that year. Well there must have been fighting somewhere, sometime, it just never got mentioned, I’d work it out when I got to it. Then the finale – big romantic scene? Sex? I don’t know, I haven’t got there yet – but I’m enjoying thinking about it!

Already I am getting ideas for book 3. Kill off a major character? Byrhtnoth is searching for a sword – will he find it? Can I hang it out into a fourth book?

These major scenes are easy, they are already written – in my head. The problem comes with the bits in between; the preparation, getting people into the right place, how long will it take? Hopefully not too much info dumping. I had this problem last week. I had to force myself to sit down and write. I knew it was rubbish but I did it anyway. I know I will cut it later.

I got through it and ready to write something more exciting. It was Friday, I was on track to reach my target. On Saturday, there was a party. A birthday party. The first birthday of my granddaughter. I enjoyed the party but afterwards I could not write what I wanted. Those burning ships would turn to candles on a cake. Byrhtnoth would be attacking the enemy with pink balloons instead of a bloodstained axe. Perhaps I could have invented a new genre – Dark Age meets Children’s Parties – a Bernard Cornwall/Pippa Middleton mash-up.

To cut a long story short. I failed. Last weeks’s word count was 4,825, bolstered by a silly but entertaining exercise of 525 words. Total 5,390.

This week is going well. I am on target, which explains why this post is three days late!

Perhaps I should plan more!