Review – Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?

Recently, in class, we have been learning about “Voice” and how different genres need to be written in a voice typical of that genre. I have had difficulty with this – I just write, without thinking about  how I do it. One of the genres we discussed was humour and Tom Holt’s book “Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?”. Someone lent me a copy. I loved it!

If you are the sort of reader that enjoys the idea of Vikings rampaging across Northern Scotland (or indeed, London) dressed in grey suits from Marks and Spencer – complete with swords and helmets, this is the book for you.

The story is simple. An ancient barrow is discovered, filled with a crew of sleeping Vikings. Clumsy archaeologist Hildy Frederiksen disturbs them, just in time to save the world from an evil Sorcerer-King. A standard fantasy  plot (I assume – I don’t read much fantasy.) that is high-jacked by the upending of expectations.

For example the Vikings, who talk and act as you would expect, are completely unfazed by the modern world. As people used to facing sorcerers and dragons, what is there to be feared in a double-decker bus? It’s just magic. They find there are places in Scotland that they say haven’t changed in 1200 years – alcohol can still be drunk on the same premises.

The Sorcerer-King is a rich businessman in a London tower block. He invented computers and controls newspapers. Extra enjoyment, for me, came from the fact that this book was published in 1988, when computer languages were FORTRAN and BASIC and radiophones in cars were a rich man’s toy.

There are wizards and elemental spirits that get drunk on electricity. There is a wolf who was transformed into a man so long ago, that when he returns to wolf shape, he cannot remember how to attack. And there is a BBC film maker obsessed with a conspiracy involving the Milk Marketing Board.

Mix all this together in a language that twists and turns, that caused me to laugh out loud. Not too loud, I hope. I read most of it on a coach to London and back. Other passengers must have wondered what was so funny about my family history research. I wanted to read out some of the cleverest lines. Instead I will mention some here:

The Sorcerer-King is in his office, feeling bored, so he gets out his sword: “With a grunt, he swung the sword round his head and brought it down accurately and with tremendous force on a dark green filing-cabinet, cleaving it from A to J.”

The wolf/business man is on his way to Scotland, to find out what is happening. “In the age of the supersonic airliner, a man can have breakfast in London and lunch in New York (if his digestion can stand it); but to get from Manchester to the north coast of Scotland between the waxing and the waning of the moon still requires not only dedication and cunning but also a modicum of good luck, just as it did in the Dark Ages.”

It is not just the evil characters (see last post) that provide the fun, it is also the Vikings. They all have their own characters, their own jokes; their disappointments when they discover the saga telling of their famous deeds has not survived the years, or has been twisted out of shape – like the Sutton Hoo helmet which they explain to the British Museum guide has been wrongly recreated.

In charge is King Hrolf, who experiences all the hidden doubts and loneliness of a leader. Like them all, he must fight or die and go to spend eternity in Valhalla, although apparently that is not what it was. “Nice enough place, I suppose, except that the food all comes out of a microwave these days and the wish-maidens are definitely past their prime. A bit like one of those run-down gentlemen’s clubs in Pall Mall, if you ask me.

They would have got nowhere, though, without Hildy. She joins the Vikings, driving them about in a variety of vehicles, selling Viking rings to dealers for cash, buying multiple servings of fish & chips to feed the King and his warriors and of course the M&S suit to disguise them. She does so well that the king give her a Name – Vel-Hilda. “The Nose word vel is short and means “well”. The same may be said of you.” A piece of wordplay worthy of the Vikings (or Anglo-Saxons).

Did I learn anything from this book? Something about building memorable characters and the use of the right word to define time and place. Also I will read more books by Tom Holt – why hadn’t come across him before?

I like to use a little humour in my writing, but I’m not sure I could manage something so accomplished – though it would be fun trying.

Writing update: 9,356 words in a week. Although not necessarily in the week in question. I was stopped in my tracks by the trip to the National Archives in London and distracted by a (possible) ancestor who left an estate worth one thousand pounds and upwards – in 1666!

Must go now – my publisher has sent the final proofs for the complete cover of Bright Sword and I must go and drool over it.

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Someone to Hate

If you are writing a book, you know who your Protagonist is – the person whose story you are telling – The Hero. In my case this is Byrhtnoth. He is searching for something – a sword. Some characters help him (friends), others oppose (enemies). Others are padding – sorry – there to help the story along. But where is the Antagonist? The Moriarty to my Holmes? The Voldemort to my Harry Potter?

I thought I knew who my Antagonist was, but I have been mislead.  I can’t continue with my original plan, due to history. He is a real person, he cannot die before his time, I cannot kill him off at my convenience.

The real antagonist was there in the shadows, hiding until the time was right. He was there in book one, but disappeared. He returns in book two, briefly and does something nasty. I planned to have him killed in book three, in a particularly horrible way, but have given him a reprieve. He is just too bad to throw away!

I nearly missed it. He is so slippery that I didn’t notice that I got his name wrong in the first draft of book two, but now I recognise him.  When I started writing I picked names at random, his was one of them, but now I see how right it is. It has even given me the title for book three. Not that I am going to give away that information yet – things may still change.

I must use him carefully. Like salt in food, a small amount enhances the dish, too much spoils it. I must get to know him, why is he so nasty? Is he completely bad or does he have some redeeming features? Is he kind to kittens? Is he capable of change? Because without change he is a pantomime villain. Just as a hero is boring without his flaws, he must have a good side.

I find the best way to find out about my characters is to just write. I have written a scene. It is from somewhere in the middle of book three, protagonist and antagonist together. Already I have discovered something about the relationship. I look forward to working with him. Of course I say “Him”, for convenience. He might be a she!

So, eventually, I have started book three. Setting a target to write 1,000 words a day or 7,000 a week worked before. I didn’t always hit it, but explaining why not, forced me to write some creative blog posts.

Bright Sword is published on 28th January – that’s ten weeks away. 10 times 7,000 is 70,000 – that’s the best part of a book!

Will I make it?

 

Fireworks for Byrhtnoth

I have come to a turning point. Well, not a turning point, just a place to stop and take stock of where I am going.

This afternoon, I finished editing Book 2. Not sure which edit it is but I have gone through the first draft, checking for all those words I overuse. One of the worst was “look”. My characters look up, look down, they look at each other, they look at the sky, at the sea and their own hands. Well, they did, but not any more, and you know what? They don’t miss it at all (I did have to put back one or two, You can’t have a whole book without the word “look”.) Other words were Begin and Start, as in “he began to do something” – no he didn’t – he just did it! There are many others – I got rid of as many as possible. Then there were the adverbs – chopped.

When I had done that, I printed out the whole thing, then locked myself away where no-one could hear and read it out loud! The things you discover when you do that! I returned to the computer with my, by now, colourful pages and made the amendments, picking up other errors on the way.

I now have a readable manuscript of just over 91K words – just where I wanted to be. I have turned it into an ebook and sent it off to my Beta readers – yes, I have actually found someone to do that job. I was tempted to write another chapter – there are a few loose ends, but that can wait, for now.

While going through all this, scenes for book 3 have been running through my mind. When the first line appeared, I knew I had to start writing again. I thought about taking part in NaNoWriMo, but didn’t allow myself to start until the editing was finished. It’s too late now, but I would never have managed 50k words in a month. I have too many other things to do.

Bright Sword finally came to the end of its proofread/copyediting and is being printed. It is available for pre-order in all the usual outlets. It even has a review on Good Reads – four stars!

So now I have given a big sigh (another overused word!) and prepare to start writing again.

To celebrate this, and because it’s 5th November, here are some fireworks.

And if you are wondering what fireworks have to do with Byrhtnoth, this picture is from a film was taken on 10th August 1991 – the finale of the thousand-year anniversary of the Battle of Maldon.

(It was supposed to be a video, but apparently it was the wrong format – just hum Ride of the Valkyries and imagine the bangs!)

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