The Last Decade – Becoming a Writer

I hadn’t noticed that it was the start of a new decade until social media filled with comments and blogs – and the usual arguments as to whether it should be celebrated this year or next. As someone who experienced the Great Millennium Anticlimax, it was not such a big deal.

Then I thought about it. About what I was doing ten years ago and where I am now, and I realised how much my life had changed. Now I am a writer, ten years ago… I wasn’t. So I am joining in the fun.

Ten years ago, at the start of 2010, I would have called myself a Genealogist, or Family Historian. It was something that I had been interested in for most of my life and by this time it had become an obsession; I was subscribed to all the websites, I read all the magazines and joined all the societies. I was even running a one-name-study, where I researched all occurances of a certain name (Madder), not just those related to me – real hard-core genealogy!

I was a member of the Rugby Family History Group, had become a member of the committee and was in charge of the transcribing projects and ran the website. The only writing I did was articles for the magazine. Perhaps, exactly ten years ago, came the first signal that something was about to change.

To encourage people to write for the magazine, we set up a prize, The Harry Batchelor Award, named after the recently deceased former Chairman of the Society. In December 2009, I won the award. I have won it again a couple of times.

Award for best article in Kith & Kin, magazine of RFHG, 2017

I was also a member of the Rugby Local History Research Group. I have no ancestors in the area where I live and sometimes did local research for Family Historians who lived elsewhere, and became interested in the history of Rugby. This is a small group and we produce books at irregular intervals. In 2005 I had written my first article in one of these books and by 2009 I was editing the edition (on WW2) published that year. Editing included organising and formatting the book, and designing the cover; an experience that would come in useful in the future.

My First Book, and later publications

The last decade has been a time where Social Media came of age, at least as far as I was concerned. Exactly ten years ago, in January 2010, I joined Facebook and in June 2011, Twitter, both to advertise my Family History research. Eight years ago, on 2nd January 2012, I set up a blog, Maddergenealogist. It is still there, but sadly unused in recent years.

It was on that blog that I gained experience in writing; posts about my latest discovery or how to use some new database. They were all strictly fact, until one fateful day, just before Christmas 2012. I had been doing a lot of research on John Madder. He’s not a relative of my Madders, but someone who had a minor impact on history. John was first mate on a ship called The Worcester and in April 1705 he was hanged as a pirate. He was innocent but it was part of the rivalry between England and Scotland that led to the Union two years later.

I had found out a lot about John and in 2011 actually started to write a book about his life; non fiction of course and I managed one chapter before giving up – I am an expert on genealogy, not ships! While casting about for something to write on my blog, I imagined a meeting with John Madder on Christmas Eve – a sort of “Christmas Carol for genealogists.” I found it difficult. Why? I had no problem in knocking off a few lines on finding the burial entry for Nell Gwyn on the same register page as one of John Madder’s possible relatives. What was so different about fiction?

A few days later I was flicking through the PGH brochure. The Percival Guildhouse is an adult education centre in Rugby. It is where the RFHG and RLHRG meet and where I have attended other courses over the years, including art classes. It also runs several writing courses and one caught my eye; Writing Fiction – it was held on Thursday mornings when I didn’t have anything else on. Why not have a go? It was only for one term.

Page of PGH Brochure for Spring 2014.

This is the class listed the following year. I wonder what would have happened if the Creative Writing class had run in Spring 2013? That was what I should have joined, but I picked Writing Fiction. The class is still advertised and starts again this Thursday – I am signed up for it, as I have been since January 2013.

It is a great class and the Tutor, Gill Vickery is an inspiring tutor. She encourages everyone to start writing a novel, so we can use the exercises to explore our characters, develop plot and everything else a novel writer needs to know. It was on 30th January 2013 that I write my first piece about Byrhtnoth. It was an exercise in description: imagine an object that you know well, describe it from a distance, then closer, then the object itself. I picked a statue on the promenade at Maldon, in Essex. This is what I wrote.

The river wound slowly through the countryside. It was not a big river and at that moment not very wide. The tide had retreated into the nearby sea and it would be some time before it returned. All that was left was a wide expanse of mud with a narrow vein of water through the middle. Small boats, which had recently been afloat, were stranded at crazy angles on the glistening mud. The remains of older ships could occasionally be seen, dark ribs emerging from the enveloping mud.
The surrounding land was not much higher than the mud; a wet, marshy land only distinguished from the riverbed by drab grey green vegetation. The whole flat landscape like a camouflage cloak spread out towards the sea.

The town stood on the higher land further inland: a church, a pub and many masts, some pleasure yachts and the tall masts with red furled sails of the sailing barges; once working boats, trading with London, but now used for pleasure as well. All marooned by the mud.
The promenade extended from the town, like a finger pointing the way towards the sea, which had stolen its river. A promenade for promenading – it had no other use. Walk to the end, stare at the river and walk back again. Used by dog walkers and grandparents with pushchairs, passing time.
At the end was a statue; it had not been there long. A modern statue, erected by the town, as towns do, to commemorate any halfway famous local celebrity.

This was no modern celebrity though but Brithnoth – ancient Saxon warrior, ancient in time and years. His ancestors had been brought across the sea by the Romans to defend this Saxon shore. He had defended it too, a thousand years ago, when Vikings had tried to take his land; He died fighting, not far from here, but had done enough to send them back beyond the river and the sea.
Now he stood again, sword raised, to defend this muddy land from further invasion. The sea? The cold east wind that cut like a Viking sword? Whatever invader came he was ready, ready with his army of dog walkers and pushchairs to defend the river.

Statue of Byrhtnoth at Maldon.

The next week I wrote more, a description of Byrhtnoth on the eve of the Battle of Maldon. Then there came the exercise on describing a door, then take the character through the door. I described a small boy and a large door. The door lead to a feast. It became the first scene of my book, Bright Sword. The rest, as they say, is history.

After much writing and rewriting, moments of despair and crises of editing, the book was published almost exactly five years later, on 28th January 2018. Two more followed, self published last year. I am in the middle of book four, hopefully to be publish in summer 2020, and I already have a rough draft of the next book, thanks to NaNoWriMo last November.

And what about poor neglected John Madder, I hear you ask? I wrote the Genealogist’s Christmas Carol the next year (December 2014). You can read it here. Then for my first attempt at NaNoWriMo in November 2018, I expanded the story. It is sitting there, waiting to be read, just a rough draft at the moment. Perhaps one day, in the next decade, it will be published.

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