I have the Power

Today, for a few hours, we have had no power. Not an unexpected power cut, this was planned. We were sent a letter weeks before – a temporary interruption for regular maintenance. It was to last from 12.00 to 3.00 pm.

I wouldn’t say this caused panic, but we filled vacuum flasks with boiling water for hot drinks and charged our mobile phones. We tried to think of something to do that didn’t involve using the computer. We even considered going out for the duration.

Then it struck me, this is a modern problem. Only a few years ago we would have taken it in our stride – I remember the seventies, with regular power cuts, the Three-Day Week.  But look further back, before the age of reliable electricity, to how life was lived by most people throughout history.

Saxon Hearth – West Stow

There was The Hearth. I mention it all the time in my books. People huddle round it on winter nights, they cook food on it, they use it to dry clothes when they come in from the rain. Why else are a warrior’s friends called his hearth companions. But a fire (usually) means wood. Someone had to collect small twigs for kindling, chop logs. Probably a large part of the population spent most of their time at this job. Of course it was not the rich men who did this. It would have been the servants, the slaves.

Consider the slaves. How had they become slaves? Most people imagine someone beaten in battle, or captured in some raid, sold in some foreign market. Or perhaps you were the child of a slave and therefore a slave yourself. Surely no-one would willing become a slave? What about a poor man in a hut? He has a family, he works hard, growing crops, perhaps he has an animal or two, he collects wood for a fire, because without it he would die. He has an accident, or suffers some illness. What can his family do but ask their lord for help? They become slaves.

Gradually, land was enclosed. The old system of open fields, common land for grazing and woods where fuel could be collected. Of course, this was organised by the rich men of the village. They had their farms or large estates, but it left the poorest without the means of survival. They had a choice – they could work, for wages, on the farms, or in the big house, or they could leave. This was the time when towns began to grow. If you couldn’t find a job, you might turn to crime. If unsuccessful at that, you were caught, and your troubles were over. You would be executed or transported – somewhere warm!

Throughout history there have been Power-Full men (and they were usually men). The rest, the women, the children and the poor were Power-Less. Not because of money, land or status, but for what it provided; the life-giving access to a hearth or its equivalent.

We should be grateful that today, we have heat and light available at the flick of a switch. Without power I could not type out this post and send it to you, across the wires and through the air. In the past, if had wanted to tell this to anyone, I would have gone out and spoken to someone or sent a letter – if I could write. I probably wouldn’t bother. I’d be too busy – collecting wood.

And after all the preparation, the power was only off for half an hour – while we were eating our lunch!

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Jumping Genres.

I quick post because I have missed two weeks, and I don’t want you to forget about me and wander off to look at other blogs.

First, the excuses! I missed blogging two weeks ago, because I was proof reading again. My second attempt after the first turned into a massive re-edit due to “Editor Problems”. It has now gone back for a professional proof read, after which it will be set in stone. I am now completely sick of the book. The ad from Amazon recommending it to me suffered short thrift, I’m afraid. It took several days to recover, with a bit of reading and catching up with the rest of my life. I even managed an afternoon of gardening – that put paid to last weeks post.

I have been trying to catch up with some of the books on my TBR pile, which resulted in some interesting thoughts. Why do I enjoy some books and not others? Some of the books were by local fellow writers, that I “had” to read.

The first was a romantic novel. The author is doing well, this is her third book and it was even on sale in Sainsburys! It had one of those covers with pastel colours and a title in swirly writing It was well written, entertaining, but I was unable to write a review. Not because there was anything wrong with it, but to write a review you need to compare a book with others of its type and I don’t tend to read this sort of book. Why? I like a bit of romance as much as the next (wo)man – I am starting to worry that too much romance is creeping into my own writing – but it has to be accompanied by some history. Not just boy meets girl, boy looses girl due to some innocent misunderstanding, boy finds girl and they live happy ever after. The sun always shines, unless a shower of rain or a blizzard is needed. Perhaps I need blood, violence and a touch of jeopardy to add spice to the mix.

Another book I read recently was set during the Second World War, but on the home front. People die, but far away. It has a local setting, so it is interesting to recognise places. There is a lot of detail about the daily life of the time. Perhaps I would enjoy it more if it was set further back in history. This is that awkward period, before my time, but familiar from my parents memories. I wouldn’t normally read about this period. The First World War, possibly, but for me it has to be set at least three hundred years ago.

I don’t spend all my reading life in the past. I enjoy a bit of horror, Stephen King for example, and some crime/mystery novels. A while ago we were discussing writing in the present tense and someone mentioned Elly Griffiths. I have been working through her Dr Ruth Galloway books. Is it the solving of clues to identify the murder I enjoy, or is it because the sleuth is an archaeologist? I don’t think it’s the second, but it certainly helps.

I think I’d better stop there, or I’ll be here for hours – time when I could be reading something set in the Anglo-Saxon period. Or, to be honest, writing my own.

I am back editing book two, chopping out all that romance, adding a touch of blood and guts.

Class started again in September. Since there are a few new students, we have begun with some basics. Already the exercises we have done has helped crystallise some new characters in book three. It (almost) helps me forget it is still four months to publication day.

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.

 

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.

What a way to spend the Bank Holiday!

With perfect timing, at the end of last week, I received the proofs for the text of my book. This has involved a very steep learning curve as well as a few problems.

Proofs ready for correction

First I had to get to grips with the Proof correction marks – the little squiggles that tell the typesetter what they’ve done wrong. The only one that I had come across before was the symbol that I thought was a carrot (actually caret) which means insert something. The reverse, to delete something, must be a runner bean, complete with curly stalk (I’ve been eating a lot of them recently!). Actually I’ve found it is called a Dele and resembles some of the “d”s I’ve seen in old documents. I love the sound of the Pilcrow, but that’s not on my list – a new paragraph is indicated by a red step round the words.

The first mark I needed (to centre text) wasn’t on the list. Not a good start!

The marks I am using most are a dot in a circle and three parallel lines.

A diversion, back to when I had my manuscript edited. This is a snap of a couple of sentences in the marked up copy:

Marked up text from editor

Would you accept the changes? This was my first book. At the time I was not sure of the correct punctuation. The editor must know best, I accepted them.

I think the original is correct and most people seem to agree. (If anyone thinks the amendment is correct, please get in touch and explain why.)
My book is full of the second version!
Thank goodness I realised, even at this rather late stage. I am doing an awful lot of correcting – for those who don’t know “dot in a circle and three parallel lines” is replace with full point and change to capital.
I am tempted to make other changes. Now that I have written a second book and got to grips with editing, I realise that the first is not as well written as I thought.
But it is too late for that now.
I have mentioned several times about how important it is to get your work professionally edited.
I am starting to wonder if that it right.

We would have died that night, if it hadn’t been for the dog.

I’ve come the end of the first phase of editing. Reduced the manuscript from 104,381 to 93,924 losing over 10k words.

Not bad – unfortunately I celebrated by putting some words back. I had removed a scene which I didn’t think mattered. I decided it did matter, so back it went, suitably edited. I then had to get rid of the rubbish I had written to plug the gap. I now have a spare 746 words floating around looking for a home – I wonder if anyone would notice if I deleted them?

I didn’t much like the final chapter. I tried rewriting using a different Point of View, but it was worse.

I’m still not happy with the first chapter, even after the edit, but the first line isn’t bad. That’s it at the top of this post. Do you like it? Does it drag you in? Do you want to read the rest of the book? Don’t worry, it will probably change!

I have put it aside for a while, am having a rest, discovering that another life is happening out there. After several beautiful summer days of refusing to stir from the computer because “I just want to finish this edit.” I was lured out with the promise of a garden visit. A nice drive in the sun down the Fosse Way to Hidcote Manor Gardens. There was no way I would be tempted to think about anything Anglo-Saxon. Would Byrhtnoth have strolled round, inspecting the herbaceous borders or admiring the subtle blends of colour?

Hidcote Gardens, The Red Border

Hidcote Gardens, Fuchsia Garden

Which got me thinking – if he was alive today, what would my protagonist be doing? Probably not a gardener. A soldier seems the obvious choice, but I don’t know. Our heroes nowadays tend to be actors, singers, sportsmen. Some writers have a certain actor in mind – the person to play the character in the film. Chris Hemsworth as Thor has the right look for Byrhtnoth, but I wasn’t sure. Anyway, he’s not tall enough.

Then one day, when I watching some Rugby, I saw him. Richie Gray plays for Scotland (but I won’t hold that against him). He’s the right height 6ft 9in, blond hair, and a Rugby scrum is probably the closest you can come to a shield wall.

One of the known facts about the real Byrhtnoth is that he married a relative of the king. Wasn’t there a Rugby player who married a member of the royal family? And no, my Byrhtnoth doesn’t look like Mike Tindall!

I think I will end the comparison there, because I don’t like to think what the modern equivalent of the Battle of Maldon might be!

Brexit?

(Isn’t it amazing the number of different subjects you can cram in when you’ve got a blog post to fill?)

I don’t like August

Most people have a a favourite month. I quite like May with it’s promise of summer, and October; a month of autumn colour and fruits, December brings Christmas, then there is the relief of January and new year. Other months I tolerate, except they pass too quickly nowadays. But I don’t like August. I should – after all, it is the time of heat, holidays and nothing much to do. I’m sure I must have enjoyed it when I was young, that long school holiday, all that time to read!

Somehow I have come to dislike it. People die (see last two posts – sorry about those!) then a few days ago I was reminded, by the excellent Captain Thomas Bowrey blog that it was on the 12th of August, in 1704, that the ship Worcester was seized in Scotland. I have an interest in John Madder, although he died in April, but this was the event that led to it. Come to think of it – I’m not too keen on April.

We don’t often take holidays in August – too expensive, too crowded and we have found, too wet. Every time we have tried to go away in that month, it has rained.

But this year I am enjoying August. If it rains, I am glad. I shut myself away and edit. Enjoy editing? I can hear the shocked gasps! Perhaps I should say that I enjoy this stage of editing. I have written my first draft and I know my writing is bad (Please don’t shout in agreement!). When the words flow, I am not concentrating on perfect prose, I just need to get it down. That is why I enjoy the editing. I now know what is wrong, and I can put it right.

I know my spelling is erratic. I know I have a tendency to use the passive voice and my verbs are progressive rather than simple (see that “am not concentrating” above? – it should be “do not concentrate”). As for my punctuation, we will ignore that for now – as I usually do!

Just for fun, here is something, picked at random and how I dealt with it.

We raced along the hard sand, close to the waves. The wind had picked up and the waves were larger. We laughed as we tried to dodge their attack upon the shore. Then the torrent of rain hit us. The shape of Bebbenburgh disappeared. We slowed slightly; there was no point in breaking a horse’s leg, or our own necks on some hidden obstacle. (64 words)

The first thing is that Spellcheck didn’t like “Bebbenburgh”. I’m not sure about it myself! About half the book takes place at Bamburgh. I am still undecided on which version to use – the modern or contemporary to the story. The text is scattered with alternate versions. This is something I will sort out later – decide which to use, and the spelling, and do a mass correction.

The next thing – is this scene actually needed? Does it progress the plot, or can I delete it? It follows a rather static scene; a conversation where characters exchange pieces of back story. A bit too much telling instead of showing. There has to be some “telling”,  but with this scene I can “show” what the characters feel about it.

How this scene is edited depends on the situation. For example, if they were being chased by rampaging Vikings, I would choose short sentences, get rid of surplus detail. It might end up something like:
We raced along the beach, dodging spears. The rain hit. Vision narrowed. We rode faster.
Down from 64 words to 15 and much more exciting, you feel your heart beat faster in response.

But there are no Vikings, they are riding for pleasure, they have enjoyed their conversation. They are excited, not terrified. Are there any words we can get rid of?

In the first sentence, would “across” be better than “along”? More suggestive of speed?

I mention the waves twice. Everyone knows that the hard sand is close to the waves, we can delete that phrase.

I have previously mentioned the wind, so no problem with it picking up, but that “had” is clumsy and the linking “and”. Merge the two events into one.

The torrent of rain is OK, but is that “us” really needed? Why not an example of how heavy the rain is, how it affects them?

The shape of Bebbenburgh disappeared. They are riding along the beach towards it, of course they can see it to start with (and not just the shape of it!). The rain comes, so heavy that it disappears , but it isn’t the only thing that disappears, the beach, sea, sky also disappear.  Just say “Everything”? (I’m not sure about this, I must think of a different word.)

How do you slow “slightly”? Another word gone.

Then that final sentence: again two clumsy phrases connected in this case by “or”. Can I amalgamate them, anyway isn’t breaking your neck more important than the horse’s leg?

Finally, what about that hidden obstacle? If it wasn’t hidden they would see and avoid it. It isn’t needed.

So, final version:

We raced across the hard sand. Wind drove the waves higher and we laughed as we dodged their attack upon the shore. A torrent of rain hit, drenching us to the skin, and everything disappeared. We slowed, no point breaking our necks or a horse’s leg. (46 words)

I think it reads better, the action is sharper, the emotion clearer, and I have avoided the Bebbenburgh question.

This fragment has reduced from 64 to 46 words. Then it’s on to the next sentence – that’s editing for you.

I started editing a manuscript of 104,542 words. With about 15k to go, I’m at 95,174. Not sure if I’ll get down to 90k, but I’m a lot closer!

And in case you wondered, “we” were not on the beach in August, it was the end of October! If you want to find out what they were doing there, and why they were laughing, I’ll be looking for Beta readers, as soon as I’ve finished this round of editing!!

Bamburgh beach in August 2005

 

and in August 2016!