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.


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.