Titles, Covers and an Announcement!

The other day, I was wandering aimlessly around Amazon, when I made a search for Byrhtnoth – just checking out the competition. It was a great shock to find my own book there – my publisher must have omitted to tell me! Even more exciting was to find that it was available to Pre-order. It’s published on 28th January 2018, so there’s plenty of time, but just so you don’t forget (or if I forget to mention it again!) Why not pop along and order it here.

I had been thinking about doing a big Cover Reveal, but it’s a bit late for that now, so today I will tell the story about how I came up with the title, and the cover.

When I started writing, nearly five years ago, it was just “The Book”. It became “Byrhtnoth” and then, when I realised that it was the start of a series “Byrhtnoth 1”. I soon discovered that some people found Byrhtnoth difficult to pronounce. It is Britnoth, although I think to his contemporaries it would be something different. There is no point in writing a fantastic book if people can’t go into a shop and ask for it.

Byrhtnoth means something like bright courage – wonderful name for a hero, don’t you think? So perhaps the title could be Bright xxx. Since the book is about the search for a sword, what about Bright Sword? Like “Sharpe”, Bright has possibilities for an endless series of books. The book formerly known as Byrhtnoth II will be Bright Axe, because there is an axe in it, and a brief appearance by Eric Bloodaxe. I’m not sure what Byrhtnoth III will be – I haven’t (quite) started writing it. Is it wrong to think of a title and write the book to fit?

Have you noticed the banner at the top of this blog? That came next. I started this blog two years ago, together with a presence on Twitter and Facebook. I was starting to think about my “brand”. At the time Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics had a special offer on banners (3 for 2? – I can’t remember now) so I approached her and after some discussion we ended up with the above.

I like sunsets (or sunrises) and the sun fits the bright theme. The view is sufficiently anonymous, but in fact is the Somerset levels, where part of the book takes place. We had a lot of problems finding a sword. I was very particular – it had to be the right era, so I couldn’t use something from the Staffordshire Hoard or Sutton Hoo with all the garnets, and there was a distinct lack of stock images of 10th century swords available. I also give a description of the sword in the book. The one you see was not the one I had imagined, but it was the best we could find. Perhaps we would find something better for the book cover. The background and font were ideal for that.

Obviously, I went back to Cathy when I needed a cover. Knowing it would be difficult to find a sword, we tried other things. A picture of Byrhtnoth? But what did he look like? Against the light a silhouette might be better. One figure – standing or fighting? Two figures fighting? Once again the choice was restricted to what was available and there was nothing I really liked. Have you noticed that you keep seeing the same figure (and sword) on different book covers?

So, it was back to the sword. Gradually we got something close to what I wanted. Four different swords went into that final image! After a while it became “my” sword. The wording was soon sorted – I had added “The Byrhtnoth Chronicles Book I” by then.

The final cover – or was it?

I sat back. That was one thing settled. People who I showed it to, thought it worked. I also made sure that I have not described the axe in Book 2 – the cover will get whatever looks best!

I was expecting to self-publish, one of the advantages of that is you can choose your own cover. When a publisher came along, I told them I already had a cover – told them several time actually. Finally they said they would do their own cover. I was devastated – that was what my book looked like. Eventually I forced designer and publisher together and they came up with something different. I took a deep breath before I looked at it. It was the same cover. I had to study the two versions carefully to spot the difference.

Second version of cover.

There are three differences (I think) but why were they made?

The first is the typeface of the writing at the top. In the second version it now matches my name at the bottom. Lesson: limit the number of different fonts, or it looks messy.

Next is that the sword passes through the letter O. This now ties the images together. Lesson: Don’t have images floating randomly in space.

Finally, the main title has been lifted off the horizon. It took me some to work out this change. Eventually, I noticed that, when viewed from a distance, the title stands out more. Lesson: Designers may know how to design, but publishers know what sells.

I only hope the contents are as good as the cover.

One final thing. Have a look at that banner again. Isn’t that sword nestling in fur? Is it a wolf skin? Did it belong to Byrhtnoth? Where did it come from? At the time I was looking for inspiration for Book 2. ¬†It now has wolves!

Eric Bloodaxe and wolves – it’s looking good! But that will be another book.

 

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Review – Viking Fire

Almost exactly a year ago, I returned from the Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford, with a pile of books. I should imagine most people who attended were the same. A few weeks ago, I felt in need of a bit of Anglo-Saxon violence and started reading one of them, Shieldwall by Justin Hill. I had bought it because the author was on the panel of the session on “Battle Scenes: Guts, Gore and Glory.” There were only two Anglo-Saxon ¬†writers on the panel, and I knew the other. So armed with my copy of Shieldwall, I barged up at the end and got it signed.

Justin Hill, Matthew Harffy, Harry Sidebottom, Douglas Jackson and Simon Scarrow talk Battles

I wish I’d read it earlier. I soon knew that this was something special. So when I noticed an offer of a copy of the next book in the series, Viking Fire, in exchange for an honest review. I jumped at it.

This is that review. Viking Fire is the second in the Conquest Series about the events leading up to the battles of 1066. In this book the focus is on Harald Hardrada, who won the first battle, at Fulford. He was then defeated, by Harold Godwinson, at Stanford Bridge. I must admit that I knew little more than that he was King of Norway. Why was he involved in this conflict?

Harald Sigurdson (Hardrada was a later nickname) had a long life – and what a life. The story starts, after a brief chapter at Fulford, when Harald is a boy. He idolizes his brother, King Olaf and when he is fifteen is allowed to stand beside him in battle. Unfortunately Olaf is killed and Harald is badly injured. He vows revenge on those responsible for his brother’s death – King Cnut, who takes the throne and his family. Harald must flee, grow strong enough to challenge for the throne.

Still recovering from his injuries, he has to navigate the mountains, in winter. Some offer help, others are enemies. When he reaches the coast, he must make a decision – catch a ship, but where? He heads east, into the frozen lands of the Rus. After years of fighting and trading in furs, he arrives in the Black Sea, captain of his own ship, to deliver a cargo of furs to the Emperor of the Greeks at Micklegard (Byzantium). He joins the Varangian Guard and rises to become one of their leaders, fighting battles at sea and in Greece and Sicily. He visits Jerusalem and becomes friendly with the Empress.

Having accumulated great riches he decides to return to the North to claim the throne of Norway. Not for the power, but for the good he can do, for Harald is an intelligent man. He sees the benefits that civilisation can bring to his homeland. He returns and briefly shares the throne with his nephew, Magnus, Olaf’s son. Magnus dies before they have time to come to blows, and Harald rules Norway for twenty years, building churches, founding Oslo, having children. By 1066 he is just over 50, growing old, why should he want to invade England? This book suggests one answer.

How is this long and exciting life packed into one average length book? Mainly because the author uses Harald himself to tell the story. Looking back on his life, he remembers the highlights, covering the journeys with a throwaway “I was with Jarl Eilief two years” or “Time and days seemed to merge into one long dream. I would wake to see thunderheads over Olympus or lookout towers over the burnt ruins of a pirate camp, and a few times dolphins raced the boat…” and their breath reminds him of an incident in Norway.

But when time stops, for a battle, the perils of the snow, an ordinary day on a Norwegian farm or the first walk through the streets of Byzantium, the writing is so clear that you are there, living Harald’s life with him, seeing each tiny detail; the heat, the taste of the wine, the excitement of the shieldwall and the pain of losing friends.

The book is full of “what ifs”: Harald could have stayed in Norway, become a farmer. He might have become Emperor of Byzantium. Or he might have beaten Harold Godwinson, and then William of Normandy, and changed history.

I loved the book, and look forward to reading more of the series.

I recently read King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett. I said that it was the best book I had ever read. Viking Fire by Justin Hill runs a close second.