Where are my characters going?

When we talk about a character’s “journey” we are usually talking about his (or her) emotional or spiritual journey, But what about the physical, boots on the ground, journey? There are the obstacles, the bumps in the road. There is the weather and where to seek shelter. Why is the journey necessary? But also, there is the decision on which way to go, especially with historical fiction.

Recently, by compete coincidence, I was following the same route that my protagonist was taking, in book two. Of course I was in a comfortable car and he was walking, but we were both following the same road to the north. I started a bit further south, but the section I am thinking of is from York northwards, nowadays the A68, in his day perhaps Dere Street. One of the great Roman roads that continued to be the main travel routes in Anglo-Saxon times and still serve today.

I have been thinking a lot about why roads are where they are. Rivers came first and it is difficult to move a river, so roads had to go where rivers permitted. Most rivers, close to the sea, are difficult to cross. The road must cross where the river was narrow enough to ford, or someone has built a bridge. Ships can sail up rivers – usually to roughly the same point as the road crosses. That is where a town is built. Nowadays roads can go anywhere, across rivers, under hills, even under the sea, but look at a map and you can see the same arrangement of roads laid down by the Romans, often following more ancient prehistoric track ways.

The Portgate on Hadrian’s Wall. What would it have looked like when Byrhtnoth passed this way?

I can look out of the car window and see the same hills and rivers, my character saw, over a thousand years ago. Although the architecture and vegetation may have changed, the bones of the country are the same. Stand on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and you can see Bamburgh Castle (or you can if it’s not raining, as when I was there recently!)

Have you ever looked at a map and noticed a cluster of those little crossed sword symbols that mark a battle site? Close to York we passed Fulford and Stamford Bridge (1066) and Towton (1461). I’m not sure about Towton, but the other two demonstrate the ford/bridge connection. Battle sites are usually close to one of those road/river pinch points.

Heading North – was that the right junction?

I hope you don’t think that these thoughts were distracting me from driving. I was the passenger, or perhaps I should say, performing the more important job of navigator. I find these long journeys are good for thinking, and thinking nowadays means thinking about my writing. When you are on a motorway and the next instruction is 20+ junctions away, you have nothing to do. Normally, when I have the unusual experience of “nothing to do”, I read – difficult in a car – although there are times when I have been desperate enough! We could listen to the radio, but that is difficult with the noise of a motorway. So I sit, looking out the window. Sometimes there are things to look at. Everything passes quickly but sometimes, something will catch your eye; a certain arrangement of clouds, a house in an unusual place, a group of people or just one person. You have no time to study it but you continue thinking about it, you weave a story around it, it might be the start of a new book, or just a brief scene in what you are writing now.

If the journey is boring, as motorways often are, I drift off into my book, enjoyable scenes or something that is causing problems. On our recent trip I started thinking about book three. With book one with the publisher and book two in the midst of editing, I allowed myself to catch the individual strands that had started to float around my brain; in which order should they be placed? How do I connect them together? The main characters are easy – I have a rough idea about their future, although that may change (I have already killed someone off and resurrected them!) It is the minor characters, the ones that pop in and out, how can I re-use them – recycle rather than invent new ones?

I started getting confused, it was difficult remembering what happened in which book. I was horrified to find myself thinking: I really could do with a notebook, to write things down.  Now anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am not a planner. Am I changing? I can’t imagine doing anything as drastic as actually dividing the book into chapters – before I’d written a word!

Perhaps a timeline, or a few brief biographies, even a family tree. And of course I’ll need a map, to track where people are and how long they take to get there.

But definitely not post-it notes!

Finally, with all this travelling about, I have lost track of where I had got to with recording my editing progress. So I will give a general overview. I have divided book two into four sections, well three sections and a bit on the end. With this edit I have got through the first two (roughly half way). 47,448 words have been reduced to 44,460, a loss of around three thousand words. There is a scene that I have decided to cut, perhaps another. I have hopes I will get under 100,00, perhaps closer to the planned 90k.

So – I’d better get back to it. I have been told I will be getting the book one proofs “sometime”.

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Digging at #Lindisfarne – a beginners guide

Last year I came across plans for an archaeological excavation on Lindisfarne, to find the remains of the original Anglo-Saxon monastery; a crowd funded project run by DigVentures.

I have been interested in archaeology for a long time – watching it on TV, reading about it and attending talks at  Rugby Archaeological Society. I have always wanted to “have a go” but had accepted I was too inexperienced, too old and lacked the time to take on another new hobby.

But this was one of those unusual digs that was looking at the Anglo-Saxon period. I studied the website – there were various options. I could become a Digital Digger – In other words, I could sit at home and keep up to date with what happened, day by day with information; videos, some live, everything other than actually being there on the ground. I would also be listed in the report and I picked the option to receive a special team t-shirt.

I enjoyed the event, it became “my” excavation.

When, later, their (our) discovery of a rare Anglo-Saxon namestone was featured on the BBC TV series, Digging For Britain, I was hooked. When it was announced that the team would be returning to Lindisfarne, I wondered. Could I actually go? Could I take part in the dig? Again there were various options – the whole dig, a week, a weekend, a single day. I settled for a single day – if I made a fool of myself, it wouldn’t matter. I checked tide timetables (see below) and accommodation (at the Blue Bell Inn in Belford, where we had stayed on our visit last year.) and in a rush of enthusiasm, we booked – two people to dig on Sunday 23rd July 2017. This is about that day.

By the time we drove up to Northumbria on the Friday, we knew the weather was not going to be good. On Saturday we spent some time in Berwick. We got halfway round the walls before it started raining, so not quite a washout. Then early Sunday morning we headed for Holy Island. We had been asked to report at 9.00 am. The causeway was open by that time. We had to leave by 1.05 pm or stay until 7.30 pm. We had paid for our day, we would be there for the day. It stayed dry(ish) until we reached the car park.

Causeway to Lindisfarne, but where is the island?

Pilgrim’s route back to the mainland.

When we got to the Site Hut (the village Reading Room) well before 9.00 we were already wet. We found a notice on the door saying work would not begin until 9.30. There were already people waiting, so we joined them. Gradually more arrived.  Finally the room, it was not very big, was full of about 20 people and two dogs, all damp.

Site Hut in Lindisfarne village

Someone eventually arrived who knew what was going on, and after some discussion, most people left for the dig site, leaving four newbies, us, another one day digger and someone who had met the organisers in the pub. We were given the introductory talk, filled in forms (including next of kin – how dangerous was this archaeology?), and had our photos taken (to distinguish us from the skeletons in the trench?). Finally, trowels in hand we were marched, through the village, to the actual excavation.

Approaching the excavation.

Health and Safety talk – basically, watch where you put your feet!

One of the two skeletons already found. The other is under the plastic sheet!

We stood in the rain for a talk on health and safety – keep away from the edges, don’t slip over etc. We were given a look at one of the two skeletons that have been found. Both have now been raised and will be on their way to Durham University for further study. Apart from these complete skeletons there were pieces of bone scattered all over the site. This was probably the monk’s cemetery and the upper level had been disturbed by later ploughing, or levelling for the Norman monastery, whose ruins loomed over our trench.

We were told to find a shovel and bucket – I found a shovel, but all the buckets were being used and at last we were led into the other half of the trench.  We were shown where to dig and left to get on with it. I tried to find somewhere to kneel – there was a pile of rocks in the way, and there were no kneelers left either, but I had a plastic bag with me, so I used that, together with the gardening gloves we had been told to bring. Later I realised that I should have worn the gloves – they keep your hands comparatively clean. Have you ever tried to use a mobile phone to take photos with muddy hands? I’m surprised it still works!

Trenches of the four “beginners” Mine at the top with plastic bag and red trowel. “Bone” below next trowel.

So what was it like? Actually digging on an archaeological site? Well, imagine kneeling on a hard rough surface, bones and rocks sticking out of the ground all around. You are focused on the small patch of ground in front of you. You must scrape away the top centimetre of this soil. When you have scrapped enough soil, you shovel it up, twist round and dump it in the bucket behind you (oh, someone must have found one!). All this in the pouring rain. I seemed to be faced with a solid mass of sticky soil – a few feet away others seemed to have better soil, but mine stuck to the trowel, it had to be scraped off, onto the shovel, then into the bucket. What if I missed something important, or more worrying, what if I did find something? We only had about an hour of this before things were called off because of the weather, but I enjoyed every minute – apart from the rain running down my neck.

So did I find anything? My Better Half kneeling beside me (with the better soil, or was it just his technique?) found a lump of something shiny. It looked like glass to start with, but it caused some interest – it got listed as a small find. It was entered into the computer system there and then, numbered, and put in a small plastic bag of its own. There were a few problems writing the number on the bag in the rain, but it is now in the database (the find is registered to me, because only my name was in the system!) You can find the details here, number 54 “Black unidentifiable shiny object maybe production waste”. That is the wonderful thing about DigVenture digs – everything is recorded immediately and put online, for anyone to look at.

He also found a bone starting to appear in his area. What did I find? A stone, that turned out to be “just a stone” and was chucked in the bucket, and an earthworm, alive. I didn’t think I needed to report that.

There was a break at about 11 and I went up on the Hough to take some pictures, but the rain was coming down even heavier. By the time I got back, the dig had been abandoned for the day.

 

Heavy rain – discussion  on whether to abandon excavation!

We all trooped back to the Site Hut. There was fiddle playing and birthday cake – we were not sure whose birthday it was, but we sang happy birthday and accepted a piece of cake – it was very good. There was a lot of waiting around and discussions as to who would go and who stay. If anyone wanted to leave the island, they had to go before the causeway flooded at 1.05. A lot of the “regulars” disappeared, but we were determined to stay. We were sent off to find some lunch, but we had a walk around the village – for some reason the rain had stopped!

When we returned, we were offered some work, washing finds. “Bone or stone?” we were asked. We picked bone, it sounded more interesting. So we were settled at the table with a washing up bowl of water, a pot of wooden skewers and toothpicks (for removing soil) and toothbrushes (for cleaning). We were given a finds tray (which gardeners would recognise as a seed tray) containing a mixture of soil and small pieces of bone. This kept us busy for hours (BH found a tooth – well what else are tooth brushes for?). I liked the pieces of skull – flat both sides and no awkward corners, but most of what we cleaned could have been anything. We enjoyed it so much, that when we had finished the box, we asked for more, but bigger. We did longer bits of bone and vertebrae etc. We hung on for a while past 5.00 when we were due to leave – just to finish that box. It was wet and messy, but surprisingly restful.

Washing Finds in the Reading Room.

We helped to pack things away, but then had to say goodbye. There were over two hours to kill before we could leave, so we decided to return to our car to change out of our boots. We had planned to find somewhere for a drink, but the rain was too heavy – we couldn’t face any more. We had water and “emergency rations” in the car, so stayed there. I had my Kindle and read for a while (Edwin: High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert – I do like to coordinate my books with my activities!) plus a recording of Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lecture “Can These Bones Live?” which seems an appropriate way to end this post; writing and bones.

Rain through car windscreen.

We made our way back to our hotel, in time for dinner. It had been an exhausting day, but one I shall never forget. Thank you DigVentures for having us.

Will I do it again? I’ll let you know when I’ve dried out!

Review – King Hereafter

I don’t know why I never read any of Dorothy Dunnett’s books. I was aware of her as an author – I had noticed a set of books set in 15th century Italy, but it was not a period that interested me. It was only once I started to write myself, and take notice of what other authors thought, that I realised that many writers of historical fiction revered her. I wanted to find out why.

Two years ago I bought a copy of King Hereafter. I started reading and knew that this was something special. It is a long book, over 700 pages, and I was busy. I wanted time to savour it, so I put it to one side. Recently I came back to it and last night I got to the end. I am still held in its spell and want to get down my thoughts while they are fresh.

For those who have never read it, this is the story of Macbeth, but not Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is the real man, Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, who might have become King of Scotland, if Scotland had existed at that time. Because of him, it nearly did. It is the story of one man’s life, but also the story of a whole world.

The Macbeth we think we know is set in Scotland, a country north of England. This book opens out to reveal the whole world; of the interconnections between countries when borders were fluid, of families connected by blood and marriage, where who you married was sometimes more important than who your father was and cousins could be friends or enemies depending on circumstances.

Thorfinn is sent to England, to the court of King Canute and his wife Emma, who controls events like a spider in a web. He meets Earl Leofric of Mercia, and his wife Godiva (who had ever considered that Macbeth probably met Lady Godiva?). Thorfinn is an heir to Orkney, he must fight for his share. Later, he gains Alba, by battle and keeps it by marriage to the widow of the previous king. It becomes a great love story.

Movement is central to the story. The action moves, with Thorfinn, not just across Scotland and the isles, but to Norway and Denmark. There is a long journey to Rome to meet the Pope. Always Thorfinn, plans, makes alliances. It is only towards the end of this trip that you realise that one reason for the journey is to bind together the young men who will be the leaders of the future, the heir of his ideas, if not his body.

The book is about religion. Not just the conflict between Christian and Pagan, but the different branches of the church. It is important that the bishop that controls your priests, is consecrated by the right person, for whichever king controls him has power over you, and your country.

I was astounded by the authors breadth of knowledge, how could she know so much about the period. I had occasion to look up some fact (I think it was the date the “historical” Macbeth died.) and found that there are little known facts about his life. In fact, the merging of the characters Torfinn of Orkney and Macbeth the king is only speculation. But the world she has created, is so real that you believe it happened as she tells it, or if it didn’t, it should have. It explains so well the state of the world in the mid-eleventh century, the rise of Harold Godwinson in England, the battles of William for possession of Normandy, the arrival of that other Harold from the east, to take over the throne of Norway. Men who would meet a few years later, in 1066, to decide the direction history would take.

But enough of history. If all the characters were fantasy, it would still be worth reading, so beautifully is it written. There are great set pieces; The firing of the hall at Ophir where Thorfinn and his wife nearly die and the storm, again on Orkney which acts as the trigger for the final downfall.

And the battle which ends at Dunsinane, four chapters, sixty odd pages of frantic action, fighting, riding across the landscape of Scotland, moments, only moments, of rest. The plot twists, from success to failure and back, as allegiances change or fade away, there is bluff and double bluff, treachery on every side. But still, there is time for beauty. From page 616, but I could have picked an example from almost any page. Siward waits outside Dunsinane:

Above, the sky hung, changing colour like fine China silk, with homing birds on its surface like powder. Here, emptied by space of all texture, men’s voices spoke and called and were thrown back from hill to hill, as every channel glinted with spears and with acorn helmets of dulled steel or leather and shields like shells on a necklace. Behind, when he twisted round, he saw that the black smoke obscuring the sun had been joined by another burst, this time of pure flame, rising over the river. He said, “It looks as if Perth has gone…”

It then continues, for a page with practical discussion on when to attack. The section ends:

Ligulf was smiling. The black moustaches opened like pincers. “No indeed,” Ligulf said. “So what were you thinking of?
And smiled all the time that he listened, so that Siward thought the moustache-ends would be hooked on his ears.

I could quote much more, but I haven’t the time, or space.

I was dreading the end. I knew there would be death. The death of a man I had come to love. A man who had started with nothing, achieved so much with his strength and intelligence and lost it through forces he was unable to control. I delayed the last few pages, until I was alone. I knew I would cry, I am close to tears now.

The ending was heartrending, but magnificent, the only way it could end. A man must die but his memory lives on.

A quote from near the end, Thorfinn and his stepson Lulach, who sees things.

“What am I thinking? I was wondering,” said Thorfinn slowly, “what story the river will carry of me?”
Lulach smiled his sweet smile, and his swan-white hair shone in the sunshine. “So many stories,” he said, “that a thousand years from today, every name from this world will have faded save those of yourself and your lady. That is immortality.”

I do not just cry for the death of a man. I cry because I now know that this is the sort of book I want to write – and I know I never shall.

A book like this takes great talent and a lifetime of writing. It is too late for me. If I had read this earlier, would I have started writing earlier, or is it only now that I know a little about writing that I can appreciate it?

Who know? I’ll just have to try my best – it’s all anyone can do.

 

A Collection of Cousins

Apologies for the delay in this week’s post, but I had to go to a funeral.

At least it gave me a subject to write about, not about the funeral as such, but some insights into families.

I also had plenty of time to think. It was a long journey, about 180 miles each way, including part of the M25. It took over four hours and we were one minute late, creeping in during the first verse of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. Others were later! Then it was back to the house to chat with relatives who we only manage to meet up with at funerals (and weddings – except no-one seems to bother getting married these days!)

My father was one of a family of five, three boys and two girls. Only one is still with us; the funeral was for another. It is now up to the next generation, the cousins, to keep the different branches of the family in touch, we send Christmas cards, and Facebook is bringing us closer.

This is a photograph, taken yesterday.

Ignoring the man, here are four women. Each is a daughter of one of those five brothers and sisters; the fifth sibling produced only boys – none was there for the funeral, probably coincidence, or do the women in a family make more of an effort?

We are a variety of sizes and shapes. Is there any resemblance between us? Possibly, but we each had another parent to dilute the family genes. We all married (some more than once), we all have children and some have grandchildren. We all get on, despite not meeting very often, or perhaps because of that. Are we any different from a random group of friends, or total strangers?

Someone (Harper Lee, I think) said “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family,” Bearing in mind the distance between us – we all live in the southern part of England, but as I found yesterday, too distant to pop in for a cup of tea – if we were friends we would have to make an effort to meet up. As it is we have to rely on the odd funeral to get together.

But they are still there, somewhere in the background, our family.

What is this to do with writing? A little while ago I wrote about mothers, how all characters must have had a mother. She must have had some influence, good or bad, that made them who they were. Cousins are different. They probably don’t have influence on you, but they are there, lurking in the background.

Several of my characters are orphans. My protagonist has no family; the book, the whole series, is about his feeling of loss, about his search for a family. Will he find them or will his friends become his family? Does he have cousins? It is something I will have to think about.

Cousins in novels are usually a device; the cousin in Australia who leaves a character a fortune that changes his life, the mysterious cousin murdering relatives because of some ancient feud.

In history, especially in a ruling family, cousins can be a problem (The Wars of the Roses has become known as “The Cousin’s War”.) or the means of continuing the dynasty, hopefully without bloodshed (James I after Elizabeth, those Germans after the Stuarts). In the Anglo-Saxon period, there was no rule that son followed father to the throne, the best person could be chosen from the “royal” family, barring Viking invasions. Did it cause problems between cousins?

But history is usually about male cousins. What about the women? They would be married off, sent to form a link with another country. Often we don’t even know her name. In more ordinary families, they would disappear, appear only as “wife of”. They would have children, boys would recognise their male cousins – they shared a name after all – but what about the girls? Did they become submerged in their “new” family or did they keep in touch? Did they meet at funerals, or communicate via whatever was the historical equivalent of the annual Christmas Card?

They are the invisible glue that keep families together.

 

And I did manage some editing last week, despite funerals, and Wimbledon. 11,884 edited, 890 lost. Think that is an improvement!

Editing, interrupted

I have started editing. I was quite enjoying it, until it was interrupted by a sudden realisation.

Book one was now in the hands of the publishers, I thought I could relax, at least for a time, before the pressure of trying to persuade people to actually buy it.

But they wanted more! I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about it before. There is more to a book than just the story.

There are the little things, like a dedication. No problem.

Byrhtnoth at Maldon “She said I did WHAT? Death to that Author!”

There are bigger things.

If you are writing a historical novel, you need Historical Notes. All that information telling your reader that your main character was a real person, giving them the facts about that character and then explaining that, actually, you had ignored all that and written something completely different, with absolutely no proof whatsoever!

All the explanation that this event happened, but a certain character may not have been there. Various places were invented, and a lot of the characters. Some were real people and I must apologise if I had turned a perfectly innocent person into a villain.

Since I am deep into editing book two, I also had to remember who was in the book and who hadn’t appeared yet!

Then there was the really big thing – the Acknowledgements! Who to thank? Who to mention? Who to leave out? Who would be terribly offended if I left them out, give me terrible reviews and blight my literary career before it even started? So, if your name isn’t there, it was because you were too special to mention and you will receive, in due course, a large bunch of flowers/bottle of something alcoholic (delete as applicable).

Should I have included a map? Not enough time. That will have to wait until the special, limited edition, hardback that will be produced, when I’m famous, by my grateful publishers.

And where is the list of place names, with the explanation of why I used one version over another? You’ll just have to look things up on Wikipedia – like  I do.

I managed to write something and sent it off. Did I check that fact? Did I spell someone’s name wrong? Too late now.

After that excitement, it was back to the editing. It started well; in the first chapter I got rid of over 100 words – I knew that scene was rubbish – it will probably be re-written many times.

Total for the week? 14,188 words checked, 142 removed. Only 1% cut! – Must do better next week.