Ups and Downs.

Time is whizzing past. Already it is the middle of January, which means it is less than two weeks before Bright Sword is published.

How do I feel? –  Terrible! It took a number of #BlueMonday hashtags on Twitter before it registered that it is the official “Most Depressing Day of the Year.” It’s something to do with weather, debt and failure of resolutions. For me it’s the day I went down with a cold – if it is a cold – there are some very nasty things going around this winter, all of which I have managed to dodge, until now.

At least it explains why I have found it difficult to write.

The last week has been very up and down. On Tuesday there arrived a pile of boxes – the delivery of actual copies of my book. Amazing feeling to hold one in my hand, open it and recognise the words that had come from my imagination and were now engraved forever in print – assuming anyone buys them!

On Thursday, I was about to leave for the writing class, clutching a copy to show off to everyone, when I received a report from a beta reader of book two. Talk about being brought down to earth! It was a shock, but they made lots of useful suggestions for me to think about, which is, of course, what I wanted them to do.

In between this, life was catching up with me after the Christmas break. A Family History meeting where I had to prepare a pile of parish register images for the group to transcribe. A Local History meeting, where we are putting together a new book for publication – and I haven’t even finished writing my articles. Yes, I will have another book out this year, and by coincidence it will also have an orange cover (It’s the tenth in a series and it’s the only colour we haven’t used yet! See here.)

On Saturday, there was a meeting of the Rugby Archaeological Society – a fascinating talk about Roman mosaics. Perhaps I could mention that at next months meeting (10th February) there will be a talk about Anglo-Saxon life, by Richard Denning – a much more famous author than me, although I might bring a few books, and a pen, with me!

So, yesterday, although I didn’t really feel like it, I tried to catch up with my writing. It didn’t go well. My characters were out of control – but not in an interesting way. Instead of getting out there and doing things, they will insist on getting together and telling each other what’s happened in the previous books. I wrote one conversation, deleted it, rewrote it, didn’t like it much but have left it for now. I did manage 1211 words. It got me to a  total of nearly 4000, this week, but I’m sure it will be scrapped.

An author needs to be strong and healthy to write. Perhaps I’ll wrap myself up and do some reading.

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Review – The Daughter of Time

I’ve had a bit of a Tudor binge over Christmas. It started when I saw the ebook of A Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey on special offer. This is a book that I had heard of, but never got round to reading. It has been mentioned several times in class. In fact, last term we did an exercise based on it – exploring what we could find out about a face in an unknown, historical portrait.

That is what the book is about. A policeman, stuck in hospital with nothing to do, is brought a pile of portraits by a friend. She knows that he prides himself on identifying whether a person is guilty or not, just by looking at their face. He becomes fascinated by one particular face – he decides this man is not a criminal, more probably a judge or a soldier. He is shocked to find out that this is the portrait of Richard III, reviled killer of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower.

He shows the picture to other people. Everyone sees something different, depending on their own experience. For example, the doctor sees illness – “Poliomyelitis” and a nurse “Liver”. The Matron says “It is the most desperately unhappy face that I have ever encountered.” The only person who sees evil is someone who recognises the man.

The policeman, Alan Grant, decides to find out more. He wants to solve a crime, five hundred years old.

The advantages, for the plot, is that this book was written in 1951. For a start, no one would be bored in hospital, with television, internet etc, so it would never get started. In this case, he must wait, for a member of staff to bring in a book on history, then another. He finds books disagree, nothing satisfies him that the “case” has been properly solved. He needs to look at original sources. The friend  who brought the pictures finds someone to work for him; a young American doing research in the British Library. He follows the policeman’s instructions, moving from contemporary historical accounts, back to original documents. All this takes time. The focus of the book remains the policeman, never moving from the hospital room. Of course there are no mobile phones, he must wait, patiently, until his assistant visits with information and is then sent for more.

Finally the policeman comes to a conclusion – a conclusion that runs against all accepted wisdom. The American assistant, astounded at the new interpretation, prepares to write a book that will make him famous and show his father he is not worthless. Then there is a final twist – which I won’t reveal in case someone hasn’t read it.

Although written and set in the 1950s, it does not seem old-fashioned. That, I suppose, is why it is a classic. It never moves beyond those four walls of the hospital room but covers relationships from modern times back into the past. It explores the meaning of history and how it is interpreted by historians  for their own ends. And of course it is a proper detective story, with a satisfying ending – whatever your views on the “truth”.

A perfect example of how to write.

I then moved on, from the sublime to, well, The White Princess – both book and TV series. But I’ll save that for another time.

As for my own writing, I started the year well, with 2,340 words on New Years Day. Since then, I’ve only done another 989. I intended to do more yesterday, but needed to look up a fact. I couldn’t find it and ended up sorting out all my writing paperwork, class notes, homework, letters from publishers etc. At least I achieved something, if not what I wanted!

Looking Back – A review of 2017

So much has happened this year. I started with one book written and a second started. I ended the year awaiting the publication of the first book, Bright Sword, in four weeks time. The second, Bright Axe (probably) is with beta readers and a third, yet to be named in progress. How did all this happen?

By January, I had received my first feedback for Bright Sword. The book was OK but contained lots of errors. I knew it needed a professional edit and made arrangements.

This was also when I decided to become more organised. I worked out how many words I needed to write – I settled on a thousand a day, which worked out at 7K a week. I announced it on this blog. Although I haven’t often reached the target, it encouraged me to sit down regularly, whether I wanted to write or not. I have created a routine: after lunch I go upstairs to the old computer in the spare room, and write, sometimes an hour, sometimes I continue into the evening (with breaks for tea.)

In February, I seem to have done nothing much except write, and start to think about publication. I was planning on self publishing – When? How could I do it? There was one landmark this month, another author asked me to write a preview of his book, before publication. This was Kin of Cain, a short book (100 pages) by Matthew Harffy. This was an easy job, it was so good; better, if that is possible, than his other books in the Bernicia Chronicles series. Read my preview here.

March was spent worrying about how many corrections I would receive from my editor.

At the beginning of April I got the manuscript back. Not too bad, but my punctuation appeared to be even worse than I thought. There was a bit of discussion about one of the characters and in the end I added a couple more scenes – only about a hundred words or so. At the end of that month, I attended the Self Publishing Conference, to make  a final decision about which avenue to take. There are so many different options nowadays, that I ended up more confused than ever. Someone suggested The Book Guild. You don’t need an agent, or to prepare a synopsis (although I had one). Just send your complete manuscript and they might offer one of several options. I had nothing to lose.

In May, as I struggled with the ending of book two, a bombshell struck. A (very) famous author, Conn Iggulden had published a book set in exactly the same period I was writing (mid tenth century). It was about Dunstan, who appears, briefly, in my book. What could I do? I read the book and wrote a review. I didn’t think much of it, although other people raved over it. Was I jealous? Perhaps, but I’ve put it behind me now.

At the start of June I heard back from the publisher. They wanted to publish my book. They offered me a partnership deal, which I accepted. I was on my way!

It was in June that I finished the first draft of book two (104,542 words) and started editing. I also went on holiday – an archaeological tour of Orkney and Shetland. It was somewhere I had wanted to go for a long time, and since it was our 40th wedding anniversary this year, I managed to persuade my husband that he would survive the ferry journey. Luckily the sea was calm and the weather beautiful. I learned a lot about pre-history and Vikings, but there was not much about Anglo-Saxons. I took lots of photos which can be found on a series of posts, starting here.

Coppergate Helmet, modelled by the author.

One the way back we stopped for a couple of days in Yorkshire. A bit of research and a trip to the Jorvik exhibition in York. More Vikings, but at least I got to try on an Anglo-Saxon helmet. It was a bit too big for me! Another day, on a walk near Wharrem Percy deserted village I was inspired by wind blowing across a field of grain. By the time we  returned to our hotel I had the plot for book three. (And that is all I’m going to say about it!)

In July, we headed north again. This time to Lindisfarne. We had booked a day’s archaeology at the Digventures site, searching for the remains of the original Anglo-Saxon monastery. Unfortunately it was very wet. We only got an hour in the trench and an afternoon cleaning pieces of bone, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. There was also a little time to explore the area for book two research (and perhaps book four!!)

At the end of August, proofs arrived. A whole new experience. It was at this, rather late, point that I discovered that I had been let down by my editor. All those punctuation mistakes that had been pointed out, were not mine. Most of them had been OK and I had “corrected” them to something wrong. Details here. It was nearly a disaster. It was a big job to rewrite the book and search for other errors at the same time. There were several runs though and gradually I signed off on the final half dozen errors. I never wanted to see that book again!

September was busy, writing reviews of books, finding people to review mine. I volunteered to review Viking Fire by Justin Hill. A great book  reminiscent of Dorothy Dunnett.  I had reviewed her book, King Hereafter, in July but in September was noticed by the fanatics (in the nicest possible way) of the Dorothy Dunnett Society, making it my most popular post this year, at 168 views.

It was also September when I found Bright Sword was listed on Amazon. I thinks it was at that point that I knew it was really happening.

In October, author G K Holloway approached me out of the blue to review his book, 1066 , What Fates Impose He has since reviewed mine and beta read book two – it’s better than Bright Sword apparently.

It was in November, with Bright Sword on track and book two on pause, I started book three. It is causing a few problems, which I’ll talk about another time, but I have written just over 30k words.

With preparing for Christmas, setting up launch events, etc and writing; book and blog posts, I have been busy.

I have taken a week off for Christmas, read a few books, and now stand on the edge of a new year. Where will I be this time next year? I’ll write a few thoughts about that tomorrow – if I am in a fit state.

Writing update for the year: I have written about 118K words of historical fiction. Words deleted and edited – unknown, but a lot.

I have written 53 blog posts – more than one per week. Say an average of one thousand (this is 1166) makes 53K.

Total 171K. No wonder I’m feeling tired!

Thank you to everyone who has helped/supported/encouraged me during this amazing year.

In 2018, may you finish/publish/sell your own books – and if you don’t write; read and add a review to someone else’s.

Just so long as it’s called Bright Sword!

FAREWELL 2017 – HERE I COME 2018!

 

 

 

Extract from Bright Sword

Today, it is exactly one month to the publication of my debut novel “Bright Sword”.

Am I getting excited? A bit, but I still can’t believe it.

To prove to myself that it is actually happening, I am releasing a short extract for you to read, to whet your appetite.

This piece comes from the start of the book, from the very first chapter, in fact.

Byrhtnoth has arrived at the King’s hall. It is winter, there is a feast, perhaps Christmas. He is seven years old.

 

Inside, the blast of noise almost knocked us backwards. So many voices shouting at the same time, like a battle was taking place. I felt my new friend’s hand tighten in mine.

            “At least it’s warm,” I said. After the cold outside it was almost too hot. The thick smoky heat carried with it the smell of many bodies, dirty straw and spilt ale. Best of all was the smell of food; the wonderful smell of roasting meat.

            Long boards stretched either side of the hall with warriors seated at them. Nearest were young men, clad in shades of brown or grey with only a glimpse here and there of more colourful embroidery. Further away were the older men, wealthy thegns, with richer clothes. So many colours, like a summer meadow. The bands of embroidery were wider and more intricate. Gold rings flashed as arms moved, and jewels glinted from knife hilts. Everyone was shouting, mostly in good-humour; toasts and bragging, snatches of drinking songs. There were arguments, which never quite developed into fights. Someone would pull the men apart and pour more ale from the large jugs scattered liberally along the boards.

            The far end of the hall was invisible. Hidden by the smoke of the fire pits; not just one hearth that you might find in an ordinary hall, but a whole line of them. Over every one a carcass roasted or a cauldron bubbled. Servants carved slabs of meat from the great roasts, cleverly avoiding the flames leaping up from the fires. Others rushed around with plates of meat or baskets full of warm crusty bread.

            Someone thrust some meat into my hand before dashing elsewhere. It was golden brown and crispy on the outside, still slightly bloody inside. I had never held so much meat in my hands. Before anyone could change their mind, I tore off a piece and handed it to my companion. He ripped at it like a half starved dog, gulping it down in chunks. I bit into the fragrant meat, the fat running down my chin. I had never tasted anything so delicious before.

            I was licking the last of the juices from my fingers when the door opened again. It was the man who had let us in.

            “You two still here? Someone’s given you something to eat?”

            I nodded; fearful we had done something wrong.

            “Come with me. I’m Oswald, you’ll be seeing a lot more of me.”

            Close to the door sat two men. They waved us on when they saw we had no weapons to hand in. Behind them was a vast collection. Knives and sharp seaxes lay neatly on a bench, some sheathed, others gleaming in naked menace. In the corner stood axes, firelight glinting from the vicious blades. Bundles of spears like sheaves of corn leaned against the wall. Then I saw the swords. I stopped and stared. They hung from hooks, some marked by the badge of their owner, sheathed in scabbards of different lengths, some plain leather; many dyed glorious colours and inlaid with gold, silver or decorated with precious jewels. The sword hilts rose proudly from the scabbards, matching them in decoration. Some were new, highly polished, crying out their owner’s status. Others were old, handed down through some great family, pommels worn smooth by the hands of generations of warriors. Automatically my hand fell to the small plain knife that hung from my belt.

            “Don’t worry. Eating knives are allowed.” One of the guards smiled at me.

           I hung my head and hurried away.

           “You’ll have a sword one day,” he shouted after me. I looked back. His grin broadened and he nodded before giving me a wave. As I followed Oswald along the side of the hall, I felt a sudden thrill. A sword. Could I ever earn a sword of my own? Had my father, whoever he was, owned a sword?

 

 

I’m sorry there isn’t more. For that you will have to wait until January 28th.

Bright Sword is the first book of the Byrhtnoth Chronicles.

Publisher: Book Guild Publishing Ltd

ISBN: 978-1912083404

The paperback can be pre-ordered here and through other outlets.

It will also be available as an ebook.

I hope you will enjoy it.

Some Thoughts about Christmas

Well, we’ve made it to Boxing Day; survived another Christmas. How was it for you?

As we settle down to read our books, play with our presents and think up ever more imaginative recipes for left overs, here are some thoughts about the real meaning of Christmas.

What comes into your mind when you imagine Christmas? Peace and Goodwill to all Mankind? Food and Drink? Family gathered round a roaring fire? Snow?

Lighting the Pudding – Symbol of Midwinter?

No, the real meaning of Christmas is Fear. Fear of the dark. Fear of starvation. Fear that this year the sun will not return and the world will end.

This is the reason that men hauled rocks half way across the country, to measure the midwinter sun at Stonehenge and passages in cold barrows were carefully aligned to mark the moment. Why calendars were developed, to calculate the day; the day when the sun turned and all mankind rejoiced that life would continue.

At a time when life depended on a good harvest and food was short in winter, it was a vital time; more so the further north you lived. Cold as well as the absence of light could be deadly, which is why most of the winter traditions originated there. Do people who live close to the equator and have no experience of short freezing days have any winter celebrations?

Winter comes and times are hard. Food must be hoarded, eked out to last the winter. Fuel collected to keep warm and the darkness at bay. How do you know when the worst is over? When the days lengthen again. What can you do to help it happen? Mankind has always invented rituals to control their lives; gods to pray to or bargain with; someone to thank when things go right – or make sacrifices to, when times are bad.

That is why we have Christmas and all the other winter festivals. I am not going into details. I’m sure most of us are sick of the discussions as to whether Christianity took over the Roman festival of Saturnalia or arguments about who invented Father Christmas or Santa Claus and whether his reindeer sleigh developed from Odin’s cart pulled by goats. Common to all of them is the moment when darkness was conquered and we could celebrate.

However, nowadays we seem to have lost the reason and celebration is everything. The early Christians turned necessity into religion, with Advent. A time of prayer and fasting, before the celebration of the Birth of Christ. The date was set as 25th December, disconnected from the actual shortest day and it lasted twelve days.

In the present era of plenty, people forgot the time of starvation and advent has become part of the preparation. Every year the period becomes longer, it now starts with Black Friday, in November and the shops start to fill with Christmas goods even earlier. Everyone complains it comes too early. There is the putting up of trees, sending of cards, the office parties and other premature celebrations. By the time Christmas Day arrives, everyone is sick of it, and so we sit here thinking “Was that it?” and start taking down the decorations.

Knowing there should be more, there is a final burst of fireworks and drinking. New Years Eve, when everything stops and we watch the clocks count down – to what? A moment accurately calculated by scientists to mark – an event nearly two weeks past.

This change is not recent. It happened long ago, when we lost our connection with the land, and time. Is it a coincidence that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, and in the process “invented” the modern Christmas, at just the tipping point that more people lived in towns than in the country? When the agricultural cycle was forgotten by most. In cities, with industry and commerce, there was no winter starvation. If you were poor you could starve at any time of year, for everyone else food was plentiful all the time. But the mid-winter celebration was remembered.

Religion declined, and advent became a tinsel covered coat hanger on Blue Peter. People still go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, not even knowing why.

And we are discontented with Christmas. We feel guilty because, deep in our ancient brain we know it is wrong. Wrong to celebrate when we have not performed the penance, placated the gods.

Is that why, when it is all over, when the New Year has been rung in, then we make our promises? To give up alcohol, to get fit, to become a better person, to finish writing that book.

Wouldn’t we enjoy Christmas more, if we had done that first?

Is that why I read, and write, historical fiction? Because they knew how to do it right?

Happy New Year.

A Story for Christmas

A Christmas present for all my readers.

(This short story was originally published here two years ago.}

 

Kingdom of Wessex, in the year of our Lord Nine Hundred and Thirty Eight.

The boy was cold. He flexed his hands, but his fingers were becoming numb. He had lost all feeling in his toes long ago. He was high in a tree, lying flat along a thick branch. The fresh smell of the bristly pine needles surrounded him. Far below, the ground was covered with thick snow. Snow lay also on the exposed branches of the surrounding trees. Everything was still. Everything was silent.

There had been plenty of noise earlier, as the crowds had ventured out into the forest. A tree had been carefully selected by the foresters and chopped down. Many people were needed to pull it back to the town. A Yule log to burn for the twelve days, and nights, of Christmas. The children wanted to help, but only got in the way, climbing and jumping over the great trunk, dodging in and out of the ropes. Someone suggested a game of hide and seek. No one had found the boy in the tree. He must have won the game.

It had been dull all day, heavy grey clouds hung full bellied, low in the sky. But now it was getting darker, a dull red glow showed where the winter sun was giving up its fight against the dark. Soft white flakes started to fall. It was time to go.

As the boy thought about how to get back down the tree, he heard a sound. He froze and listened. It was the sound of horses, tramping slowly through the snow. The occasional crack as a hoof broke through the frozen surface, the crunch as the snow compacted underfoot. As they came nearer, he heard the quiet jingle of harness. Who rode through the forest at this time of day?

They came in sight. There were three men, one in front and two following. They looked tired, huddled on the slow-moving horses. The first horse was white. It seemed carved out of the snow itself. The rider was swathed in black. The following horsemen were just dark shapes moving though the swirling snowflakes. Suddenly, the sun discovered a chink in the armour of the clouds and sent a final triumphant dart of light through the trees. The leading rider looked up and his head glowed with a golden light. The boy gasped. The sun set and darkness returned.

What had he seen? For a moment, the man on the horse had looked like the pictures painted on the walls of the church. Was he a saint? If he was, which one? The riders were beneath the tree and the boy craned down for a better look. He lost his balance. His numb hands were unable to maintain their grip in the cold branch. He struggled and then, in a cloud of snow and pine needles he plummeted to the ground.

He landed in a drift of snow that had collected at the side of the path. Winded, he lay for a moment, and then struggled to his feet. The following riders were no longer muffled shapes but armed men, moving towards him.

“Stop!” shouted the man on the white horse. “It’s just a boy.” The men stopped but did not sheath their swords. The boy stared at them, then looked up at the man beside him.

“I’m not a boy. I’m one of the king’s warriors.”

“Oh, you are, are you?” The rider inspected the skinny boy standing before him, buried up to his knees in snow. “Where did you come from?”

The boy had extricated himself from the snowdrift and was brushing snow from his clothes. “I fell out of the tree.”

“I didn’t think you floated down on a snowflake. Why were you up a tree?”

“We were… training. Practicing how to hide in the snow.”

“Very successfully.” The man looked around at the empty landscape. “I can’t see anyone.”

“They’ve all gone home,” muttered the boy. He hugged his arms round his body trying to get warm.

“You look cold.”

“I’m all right.” The boy stood up straight.

The man nodded. “Are we near to Winchester?”

“It’s not far. Just carry on along this road.”

“Can you show us the way to go?” He leaned down and held out a hand.

The boy stared at up the man. His hair wasn’t fiery gold, just fair, with a few threads of silver running through it. It was cut short, as was his beard. His face was tanned and his pale blue eyes were surrounded by the wrinkles of someone who had spent much of his life staring into the sun. He smiled showing white even teeth. He didn’t look dangerous, so the boy grasped the offered hand. He was pulled upwards and settled on the horse’s back. The man was stronger than his slender frame suggested. The man tucked his thick black fur cloak around his passenger and urged the horse into motion again.

“SHow long have you been the king’s warrior?”

“A whole year. Well, nearly.”

“Nearly a year. That’s a long time.” The boy nodded. “Are you any good?”

“Well. I beat most of the other boys, most of the time.”

“Only most of the time?”

“All right, all of the time, but I don’t want to boast.”

“Of course not,” laughed the rider. “Perhaps you can come and fight with me, in a year or so.” The boy thought about it.

“ I’ve only used a wooden sword. They won’t let me fight with a proper sword.” He glanced longingly at the sword that hung from the saddle.

“You can do a lot of damage with a wooden sword. If you know how to use it properly.”

“I know.” The boy looked up and grinned. “You can’t kill anyone though.”

“Do you want to kill somebody?”

“Sometimes. When they call me names.”

“Why do they call you names?” The man glanced down at the boy. “Because you are better than them?”

“No.” The boy pulled the cloak tighter around his body. “Because I don’t have a father.”

“I’m sorry about that. Did he die?” The boy just buried his head deeper in the dark fur.

The man stared into the whiteness ahead and lowered his voice. “Sometimes it’s better to have no father at all, than one that hates you.” They rode on in silence.

“What about you mother?” asked the man gently.

“She died, the summer before last.”

“But you remember her?”

“Of course.” The boy thought for a moment. “I think I do.”

“You have that, then. I don’t remember mine at all.”

“That’s sad.”

“It was a long time ago. I’m over it now.”

“Are you?” The boy twisted to look up at the face above him. The man looked down and smiled.

“Of course I am.” He dug his heels into the horses flanks but it refused to move faster, just plodded on. “So you became a warrior?”

“Yes. Now I have friends, the other boys.”

“Apart from the ones you want to kill?”

The boy laughed. “You must be good at killing.”

“Some people say I am. I’m still alive anyway.”

“Did you fight at Brunanburh? With the king?”

“I did fight there, yes.”

“It must have been exciting. I want to know what happened, but no one will tell me about it.”

“A lot of people died. Perhaps in the future, when the friends of the men who died have gone, people will talk about it. When you are older, you will understand. I see lights ahead. Is that Winchester?”

The boy stared into the darkness. “Yes, that’s it.” He looked round. “I’d better go. They’ll be wondering where I am.” He unwrapped himself reluctantly from the cloak. “Thank you for the ride.” Before the horse had stopped, the boy had jumped, landing lightly on his feet. He ran a few paces and turned to look up at the man on the white horse.

“Perhaps you can tell me about other fights. An old man like you must have fought in many battles.”

“Not so much of the old.” The man grinned down at the boy. “I’ll be busy while I’m here, but I’ll see what I can do.” The boy was already moving, but he turned, and shouted back.

“There will be plenty of time. It’s Christmas.” The sound echoed through the trees and the boy ran on, faster. He leaped over an obstacle, landing in a pile of snow. He shook himself like a dog and ran on. He dodged through the trees and disappeared. Only the sound of his voice lingered. “It’s Christmas!”

The man on the white horse watched him go. “Perhaps I am getting old.” He sighed.

“Come on, it’s nearly dark.”

“He was disrespectful, my lord.” One of the attendants grumbled.

“He was young. We were all young once. Even you.” The man just grunted.

The other man had removed something from a soft leather bag “Do you want to wear the crown for your entrance into the city?” He held it out.

“I suppose I must.” He took the gold circlet and carefully placed it on his head.

Then King Aethelstan of Wessex, King of all England rode on to attend his Christmas Court at Winchester.

 

Historical note:

The boy is, of course, Byrhtnoth. When he died at the Battle of Maldon in 991, it is thought that he was in his sixties. For the purposes of my book, I have taken his year of birth to be 930.

Aethelstan, grandson of King Alfred died on 27th October 939. He was in his early forties. He had become the first King of England and one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings. It is not known where he spent Christmas 938. Perhaps at Winchester?

 

Happy Christmas.

Review – The Anglo-Saxon Fenland

Your protagonist must have a home.

A home to leave to go adventuring, or a home to return to. Perhaps he has no home, but is searching for it or it is forever lost to him. It is part of his background story. Even if you never describe it, you should know where it is, or was.

When I started writing about Byrhtnoth, I tried to find out where he came from. There seemed to be no information. There are suggestions that his ancestors were from Mercia. Politically he was linked to Athelstan, Aeldorman of East Anglia. There was another person of the same name, living around the same time, he was Bishop of Ely from 970 to 996. Byrhtnoth was a patron of Ely Abbey, giving it many villages, mostly in that area. He was buried at Ely after his death at the Battle of Maldon.

It seems reasonable to assume that his original home was in the area. I pored over maps and selected a particular village, on the edge of the Fens (The fenland is that mysterious area around the Wash, on the junction of the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Lincolnshire.) At the time we were travelling regularly along the A14. One day we made a diversion and drove through the village; we looked at the church, walked a bit. It would do as a base on which to build Byrhtnoth’s village. My made up village probably bears no resemblance to the original, it has changed due to the vagaries of plot. I have never managed to find a name for it, it is just “The Village”.

Earlier this year a book was published, The Anglo-Saxon Fenland by Susan Oosthuizen (details here) and I thought I’d better read it. What if I found I had written some detail that was incorrect? I don’t think I have, but I now have lots of facts to sprinkle lightly into the descriptions.

The book first poses the question: “When did the Anglo-Saxons arrive in the fenland?” The area was extensively farmed in the Roman period; what happened when thy left? Did the native Britons abandon the area, leave an empty space into which the Anglo-Saxons moved. The answer seems to be no. A detailed study of place names suggests that locals and invaders (if such they were) mingled, continuing to farm the area. If the area had been abandoned, the landscape would have changed, dry land would have appeared and trees. It is an area that looks empty, but in fact it has been carefully managed, probably for millennia.

I learnt about the different soils and how the height of water affects the grasses and other plants. It is a rich area, but only if eternal vigilance is maintained. Everyone had to work together. Many of the grazing animals, cattle in one area, sheep in another were regularly moved, to make use of type and height of grass. Areas were left to regrow, pregnant beasts and young got the best grass in spring etc. The important thing was, that all this was done in common. Everyone would have to get together to agree what was to be done when. Groups of vills (parish, manor etc.) were bound together, all utilising the same fen; the next group, another fen, which might be quite a distance away. So, everybody, lord, peasant, anyone who owned land in a particular area, had a say in what was done – democracy of a sort.

There is a lot more in the book; about the way the water was directed to where it was needed. That flooding was important. If the land didn’t flood it reduced the amount of rich silt, to grow the grass. Only lack of flooding caused a problem.

I could go on, the book was fascinating. I learned a lot. I hope it will improve my writing – I certainly need to find out more about dairy farming in the tenth century. There must be another reference book about that somewhere. Too late to put it on my Christmas list?

I found it difficult to write this week, I kept being called away to go and buy a tree, make decisions about decorations, when to buy a turkey, etc.

I put my blinkers on and manged 6,294 words this week – I was surprised. I don’t expect I’ll do much in the next week, perhaps the week after!

I have planned some special blog posts over Christmas, so keep a lookout for them.

Happy Christmas and wes þú hál  if I don’t see you before.