I meant to write this post earlier, but preparation for the publication of Bright Helm has occupied most of my time – did I say I had a new book out?
In a previous post I mentioned that Byrhtnoth’s body was taken to Ely to be buried. Much later, in 1769, the bones were moved and a group of gentlemen attended and measured the bones and his height was calculated as 6ft 9in (2.0574m) and this is how I imagined him, although in the books I never specified exactly how tall he was – just taller than most people.
How was this figure calculated? Was there any record of the measurements? In May 2019 I was at the National Archives at Kew. I had some time to spare, Could I find anything there? There was nothing in the index, but the building also houses an extensive library; books on a whole range of historical subjects, complete runs of magazines and journals, directories etc. Many of the books are arranged in geographical sections so I search through those for Cambridgeshire. There were a lot about Ely Cathedral and finally I struck gold.
Historical Memorials Of Ely Cathedral: In Two Lectures Delivered In Cambridge In The Summer Of 1896, was written by Charles William Stubbs. Now I know what the book is, I could have ordered it on Amazon; there is even an online copy here. However I photographed the relevant pages and carried on with researching the documents I had come to see. Stubbs quotes an extract of a letter written by Mr Bentham (James Bentham (1709? – 1794) was an English clergyman, antiquarian and historian of Ely Cathedral) to the Dean of Exeter, and read to the Society of Antiquaries, Fen. 6, 1772, describing “the discovery of the bones of these old Saxon worthies immured in the North Choir wall.”
“When it became necessary, on account of removing the choir to the east end of the Church, to take down that wall, I thought it proper to attend, and also give notice of it to several gentlemen, who were desirous of being present when the wall was demolished. There were the traces of their several effigies on the wall and over each of them an inscription of their names. Whether their relics were still to be found was uncertain; but I apprised those who attended on that occasion, May 18, 1769, that if my surmises were well founded no head would be found in the cell which contained the Bones of Brithnoth, Duke of Northumberland… The event corresponded to my expectation. The bones were found inclosed, in seven distinct cells or cavities, each twenty-two inches in length, seven broad, and eighteen deep, made within the wall under their painted effigies; but under Duke Brithnoth there were no remains of the head, though we searched diligently, and found most, if not all his other bones almost entire, and those remarkable for their length, and proportionally strong; which also agrees with what is recorded by that same historian in regard to the Duke’s person, viz., that he was ‘viribus Robustus, corpore maximus.’ This will more clearly appear by an exact measurement I have taken, and annexed thereto, of so many of the principal bones of those persons as are remaining entire. From these measurements, os femoris 20½ inches, tibia 16¾, os humeri 14¼, ulna 11 4/6, clavicula 6½, it was estimated by Dr Hunter that the Duke must have been 6 foot 9 inches in stature. It was observed that the collar bone had been nearly cut through, as by a battle axe or two-handed sword.”
So, it was Dr Hunter who calculated Byrhtnoth’s height. This must have been Dr John Hunter (1728 – 1793) the eminent Scottish surgeon, fellow of the Royal Society etc. But were his calculations correct? Time passes, knowledge increases, would a modern scientist agree? We’ve all watched TV programmes where archaeologists take a few bones and produce an accurate version of the original person. If only I knew someone like that!
Then I remembered. The Rugby Archaeological Society had had a talk by Dr Anna Williams, a Forensic Anthropologist. The talk had been about setting up a British “Body Farm” – very interesting. We had even had a brief conversation about my books (I must have been promoting one of them at the time!). I took a deep breath and contacted her. She was happy to help, and, after converting inches to centimeters then back to feet, soon produced a result for me.
All the measurements suggested a stature of between 5’9″ and 6’2″, not 6’9″. I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed. My hero had shrunk. But then I realised, “My” Byrhtnoth is a character in my books – his real height probably made him taller than a lot of men at the time anyway, and I don’t suppose he had blond hair and blue eyes either. Although they are doing clever things with DNA nowadays.
I wonder if Ely Cathedral would consider digging him up again? Although I don’t think a facial reconstruction is possible – unless anyone has found a skull without a body, somewhere in Norway, or Denmark – depending on who it was who chopped it off!
Today is the one thousand and twenty ninth anniversary of the Battle of Maldon – or was it yesterday? Or two years later, or three years earlier; the sources differ. One thing is certain, we know where it took place. Or do we?
Everyone knows that the Vikings landed at Northey Island, not far from the town of Maldon, and the Battle was fought at the landward end of the causeway, when Ealdorman Byrhtnoth foolishly allowed the enemy to cross and was killed in the ensuing battle.
I wrote about the battle a month ago as part of the Historical Writers Forum Summer Blog Hop and it was as a result of that post that I received an enigmatic tweet that led me to a completely different theory.
Surely it is obvious, the Northey Island location fits the facts – if the Battle of Maldon poem can be called fact. But does it? I was shocked to learn that it was only in 1925 that this site was decided upon. Is it coincidence that the site identified was open, visible and easy to view. The National Trust put up a sign and the site was protected. It even appears on maps.
Northey Island Plaque (from National Trust website)
What is the evidence? Archaeological field walks have taken place on and around Northey Island. Roman, Medieval and Post-Medieval material has been found but nothing Saxon, and definitely no signs of Vikings. Did ninety three Viking ships arrive, full of warriors, hang around for a few days then fight a major battle – all without leaving a single coin or belt end, or trace of a hearth?
Also, when you think about it, the site doesn’t make sense. Vikings are known for sailing up rivers, as close to their destination, then hitting hard and fast before leaving. Why hang around in the middle of the river, giving time for defenders to arrive, then fighting their way ashore, still some distance from their objective; the mint located in the Burh at Maldon, built by King Edward the Elder in 912?
Even before the 1925 decision, historians had offered different locations, why were they never considered? In this situation local knowledge is helpful and knowledge that included research into the topography of the area at the time of the battle is vital.
The river has changed a lot over time, sea levels were lower and at one time the River Blackwater was navigable as far as Heybridge, where an old church, probably Saxon in origin overlooked a marsh. The road that runs from Heybridge to Maldon through this marsh has long been known as “The Causeway” and regularly flooded. There is also a bridge, which is mentioned in the poem. Wouldn’t this have been the logical place for the Viking to land? It fits the details given in the poem better than Northey
The clinching point for me is the archaeological evidence, sadly lacking at Northey. In the 1960s, work in the vicinity of The Causeway brought to light a collection of swords and what might have been shield bosses. Unwilling to experience delays, the objects were reburied, except for one sword.
Once again it has been a long time since my last post. My excuse is that I have been writing, but now I have stopped, for a while. My next book, the fourth in the Byrhtnoth series, is with my editor, which has enabled me to pause, have a look around at what has been happening in the world – and quickly return to the tenth century!
I have been planning where to go next, a sequel, or what about a prequel; or something completely different. But I have also been looking back at the book I have just written and spotted a particularly good example of how inspiration works – at least for me.
It all started two years ago at the HNS conference in Scotland. Not actually at the conference – you can read all about that here – but afterwards. It seems like a lot of effort to travel all the way up to near Glasgow, and back, just for a weekend, so we had booked a few extra days to explore the area. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t terribly good, but we managed to explore the odd ruin. One thing that frustrated me was that having spotted the magnetic attraction of a rash of red names on the map indicating historic sites. I was told that it was too far for a day trip from where we were staying – there were several large lochs in the way! It would have to wait for another time.
The place I had spotted was Kilmartin and the area was chock full of stone circles, cairns and cup and ring marks. Several months later and we were discussing holiday plans and I suggested Kilmartin. We found what looked like a nice hotel not far away and booked. It was during that interesting process of finding out what else was in the area, that I read a blog post.
I tend to follow other authors on twitter, read their blogs and quite often learn something interesting. In this case it was a blog post by Steven A. McKay, an author who I had discovered from his “Forest Lord” series about Robin Hood and continued with “Warrior Druid of Britain” set in post Roman Britain – I am eagerly awaiting book three “The Northern Throne” of this series which is published in August.
The post was about Dunadd Fort, you can read it here, and I noticed it was one of those red place names close to Kilmartin. Inspired by that blog, it went on the list and last year, in May 2019 we visited Dunadd. From a distance the place looks nothing special, a lump rising from an expanse of flat land, but closer it is recognisable for its strong defensive position. It was originally fortified more than 2000 years ago but it became famous as the centre of the ancient Kingdom of Dal Riata, between 500 and 800 AD.
The month before our trip, I had published the second of The Byrhtnoth Chronicles, Bright Axe and the third book, Bright Blade would be published that October. I was in the middle of planning book four, so I was primed for inspiration. Walking around this atmospheric site, it struck!
In an earlier book I had introduced a character, rather mysterious with an unknown past; they didn’t even have a name (Mainly because at that point I couldn’t find the right one.) Now I knew where they had come from – Dunadd. Everything fell into place. I had added an interesting plot line to my story, as well as tying up several loose ends.
Perhaps it was just a case of being in the right place at the right time – I had several other ideas that holiday, some I used, others fell by the wayside, perhaps to be used somewhere else. If you want to find out what happened at Dunadd, I’m afraid you will have to read the book, Bright Helm. It will be published later this year, fingers crossed.
I hope you enjoy the pictures. I’m afraid the weather wasn’t brilliant, but later as we searched for cup and ring marks, the sun came out and when we arrived at Crinan for a cream tea, it was perfect. Then we had a walk along the canal (for the driver – he likes canals.) A day well spent.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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 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 prickly pine needles surrounded him. Far below, the ground was covered with thick snow. Snow also lay on the exposed branches of the surrounding trees and a little had even settled on the boy’s back. Everything was still. Everything was silent.
There had been plenty of noise earlier, when 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 hall, a Yule log to burn for the twelve days, and nights, of Christmas. The children tried 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 thought 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 night. Soft white flakes fell. It was time to go.
As the boy debated how to get back down the tree, he heard something. He froze. 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 in the darkness?
There were three men, one in front and two following. Tired, they huddled on the slow-moving horses. The first horse was white, seemingly 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 unable to maintain their grip in the frozen 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 extricated himself from the snowdrift and brushed the snow from his clothes. “I fell out of that 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 close to Winchester?”
“It’s not far. Just carry on along this road.”
“Can you show us the way?” 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 strong white 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.
“How 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?”
“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. “It’s 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 your 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.”
“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 horse’s 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?”
“You must be good at killing your enemies,” said the boy.
“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 looked 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 away when 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, let’s get a move on, it’s nearly dark.”
“He was very disrespectful, my lord.” One of the attendants grumbled.
“He was young. We were all young once. Even you.” The man grunted.
The other man 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 Æthelstan 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 books, I have taken his year of birth to be 930. Æthelstan, 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?
This post is part of the Historical Writers Forum December Blog Hop. Tomorrow it is Paula Lofting’s turn and the Blog Hop finishes on Christmas Day with a post from Alex Marchant. If you missed any posts you can find the links here:
What is Historical Detective Fiction and why would I want to write it? A good question and difficult to answer.
The short answer is that I was coming to the end of The Byrhtnoth Chronicles (at least for the time being) but wanted to continue to inhabit the same “Universe”. Byrhtnoth deserved a rest, so why not take one of the other characters and tell their story?
The character was obvious, but what story did they have to tell? Among the many historical fiction books that I have read, I have especially enjoyed series with a detective character, solving a crime, usually a murder. The first I read must have been Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael, the first “A Morbid Taste for Bones.” was published in 1977. I must have read most of the series before it was televised, which I felt was a disaster – the casting of Derek Jacobi was completely wrong.
After that I looked for other series, covering many different periods. From the Roman era there is Lindsey Davis’ Falco. Susanna Gregory writes about Brother Bartholomew, a 14th Century monk and also Thomas Chaloner a Civil War spy trying to survive after the Restoration. Then, of course, there is Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer towards the end of the reign of Henry VIII written by C. J. Sansom.
In the Victorian period there is Anne Perry with both William Monk (1850-60s) and Thomas Pitt (1880-1890s) and bringing us into the (early) 20th century, Amelia Peabody, an Egyptian archaeologist, written by Elizabeth Peters.
Then there are the one-offs: Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, although in that case the detective is modern, only the crime is historical; and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. This is on television at the moment and the plot is made more impenetrable by the bad sound quality.
I could go on, there are many more. Find your favourites here. I notice there is nothing set in the 10th Century. Sister Fidelma by Peter Tremayne detects in 7th Century Ireland then there is nothing until after the Norman conquest.
Can I fill that gap? That is where NaNoWriMo comes in. I posted about how I was doing at the halfway point. Now it has finished, and I am pleased to say that I reached 50,341 words on 27th November – three days early!
Is it a Historical Detective Novel? Well, it has a murder and several suspects, It has a detective and several red herrings. I have not managed to get to the traditional “gather everyone in the library and reveal the murderer” moment, but I know who “did it”. Whether it is any good will take a lot more work – I haven’t even read it through yet.
I found it easy to write, but I encountered several problems. In particular, names. I have mentioned this subject before here. Anglo-Saxon names can be difficult – they all had the same , or similar, and most of them are unfamiliar to the general reader. There were no surnames. I think I have managed OK in my previous books, with a small group of people continuing through 3/4 books with only the occasional new addition. Detective fiction is a whole different ball game.
I knew before I started that there would be a problem. I needed a victim and suspects, so I had already found names for them. Where? What is the biggest collection of Anglo-Saxon names ever collected? The Doomsday Book! There are a lot of Norman names as well, but most places had an A-S owner in the time of King Edward.
I went about it logically. I had already found a location for my crime, so I looked it up in Doomsday, together with a few of the surrounding villages, and produced a list so that I could pick a name when I needed it. I know that the names in 1066 are not the same people who were living there over a hundred years before, but I assumed that if there were any regional variations in name usage, they would be reasonably genuine.
And I did need a lot of names! Think about a detective story. There are not just the obvious suspects; there are other witnesses. There is the local policeman, who has arrested an innocent man. There is the character with local knowledge to befriend the detective, plus his wife. There is the young boy/servant who can mix with the lower classes, run errands and take messages. This is all apart from working out what the local Anglo-Saxon equivalent is. As I said, there is a lot of work to do!
Then there is also the problem with how to address people. I was used to using either proper name or “my lord”. Just how did an Anglo-Saxon address a suspect without a Mr This or Mrs That. Did they use Sir and Madam? It doesn’t sound right.
Another difficulty I encountered was how to deal with those little phrases that crop up in an interview/ conversation. “Tell me more” “What did you do next” “Where were you that day” “Did you batter XXXX to death with a candlestick?”. So much easier to have a fight and chop someone’s head off.
Perhaps I’m not cut out to be a detective novelist. I’m sure everyone will be able to work out the guilty party long before the end. At least I have had a go, and that is what NaNoWriMo is all about. I will finish the story, leave it alone for a bit, then give it a read. Perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised. If not, at least I have learned a lot about historical detective fiction.
Meanwhile I must get back to Byrhtnoth and solve his problems. Perhaps he will have to carry on with his adventures after all.
Last year I took part in NaNoWriMo, also known as National Novel Writing Month, when mad writers attempt to write 50,000 words in one month (November). I had heard other writers talking about it and had a go, just to see if I could do it and I “won” – sounds good doesn’t it? All it means is that I reached the total number of words within the time limit. (I managed it with a day to spare, if I remember rightly.)
This year I am doing it again. Why?
It’s not as if I have plenty of time to waste – the aim of the exercise is to write something new – not carry on writing what you would be doing normally. As you may have noticed, this blog has been rather neglected of late.
Back in April, I stuck my toe into the world of self-publishing with Bright Axe, book two of the Byrhtnoth Chronicles. It was so easy, I carried on and published book three, Bright Blade, last month (October 12th). Why the rush? Well I had booked a table at the Southam Book Festival held on the 20th of that month, for myself and several other authors from Rugby Cafe Writers. We had attended in 2018 and had quite a successful day. And I wanted to see all three books together. Don’t they look nice?
Over the summer, while the editing etc was going on in the background, I was writing book four in the series. As it grew I worried. If you have read previous posts you will know that, although I have a vague idea of the outline, I don’t normal plan my books. This time, I did plan. It ran to a whole two sides of A4, a list of the main points to be covered, where the mid-point came and all those other technical things – I was quite proud of it! The problem was that I have got to 60,000 words and only reached section seven (of 22!) It is all very emotional, with lots of tension, but nothing had really happened – nothing that a reader of this sort of book would expect. I carried on, because I couldn’t stop, but with the knowledge that most of it would have to be dumped.
It was at this point I had to stop to deal with the publication of Bright Blade. The problem simmered in the background. Was this new WIP one book or two? Should I drop the angst altogether and get on with the plot? And what was next? I had already decided that the story would end with this book. Was I ready to let go and write something different? Perhaps using the 50,000 words from last year’s NaNoWriMo (My time travel novel)
From this chaos rose another idea. Yes, book four, whatever it was, would be the last of that plot arc, but the story would continue, with a different character in the spotlight, and it would be a different type of book, more of a historical detective style. It seemed like a good idea, but do I have the sort of twisted brain to write a detective novel?
This is where NaNoWriMo comes in. I could start this new book at the beginning of November. Within a month I would know whether I was capable of writing this sort of thing, or not. If I manage it, then I have the basic first draft of what I am calling book five. If I fail, I will have got it out of my system. I can forget about it and get on with problematical book four.
And that is the beauty of NaNoWriMo. It frees you from the straight and narrow. Allows you to to attempt something you never thought you could do – a bit like a holiday, really.
Except it is hard work. You are committing to writing an average of 1,667 words. It doesn’t seem that much, but that is every day, for 30 days. If you go out for the day, you must write when you return, or write twice the amount the next day. I find it easier to bank the extra words beforehand. It forces you to write, even when you don’t want to write. The fear of falling behind is a great incentive!
So – how am I doing? The halfway point came on 15th November and I should have reached 25k words. I must confess that I fell short – one hundred and twenty four words short. My total had only reached 24, 876. My only excuse was that I went out and bought a helmet, a proper Anglo-Saxon helmet. It’s not an excuse I have ever had occasion to use before, but more about that another time.
It is now late on 17th November and today was difficult, the words had to be forced out, but my total is now 29,170. I must be ahead because the statistics tell me I am due to finish on Nov 29th. To prove it, this is what my progress looks like:
There’s still a long way to go, but I’ve not got a lot on for the next couple of days and as long as the dots stay above the line I’m OK.
I’m not sure I would like to do this sort of thing all the time, but for a month it is exhilarating – and it distracts you completely from Christmas preparations!
I’ll be back in two weeks to report on whether I reached the target and if I produced anything worthwhile.
And where does the apostrophe in Writers go? Is it the inability to write by one writer – you, or the curse of all writers? Enough of that. I have finished with editing for now, and am back to writing. It is going well, or so I thought.
It has been a busy summer and as the year turns towards autumn, I realised it was a long time since I had updated my followers on what I have been doing. BTW, did you know that for the Anglo-Saxons, August was the start of Autumn?
Bright Axe was published in April and I spent a lot of time trying to promote it. I became involved in a Facebook Blog Hop – A fascinating, although rather chaotic exercise when a group of Historical Fiction interviewed each other’s characters. You may have noticed the other Anglo-Saxon warrior who paid us a visit last month. Originally I was in line to interview Lady Macbeth, but she was too busy. That would have been interesting! Byrhtnoth was interviewed by Jen Black. You can find links to all the interviews on the Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop Page.
I then turned my attention to my third book, to be called Bright Blade. I hope to publish it later this year. “Watch this space” as they say. It has a beautiful cover awaiting it – can you guess what weapon it will show this time?
That has now been sent away for a final edit, so I was free to make a start on book four. This has been hammering on the door to my brain for some time. It will be the final book in the series, although I’m sure Byrhtnoth will be back again for more adventures. This is the book where everything is resolved and Byrhtnoth finds what he is looking for – whatever it is!
I know where it starts – a few months after book three and I know where it finishes, with everyone happy, all loose ends tied up and the villain suffering a long deserved and horrible fate, perhaps. I know roughly what happens and when. I had even – shock horror – written an outline! Well, I scribbled a few sentences on a piece of paper. Not quite the back of an envelope – I actually bought a brand new notebook. I was able to identify the midpoint and the inciting incident. I numbered the sentences, let’s call them chapters for convenience, there were twenty two. With an aim of about 100,000 words that gives an approximate 4-5 thousand words per “chapter”.
On 28th July, I started to write. I returned to my aim of writing 1,000 words a day or 7,000 a week (Sunday to Saturday). After the first week, I was over 8,000, the second 15,000. By 17th July I had added around 4,000, but I had been away for five days and done no writing at all. I had visited West Stowe and Sutton Hoo, so I think that counts as research (more about that another time).
As the word count mounted, to 20,000, then 25,000, I started to worry. I know, stupid isn’t it? The words were flooding out, but were they the right words? I don’t want to go into any details but the book starts with a conflict between the two main characters. It was what I had planned, but it seemed to go on and on. I could hear my editor asking when the real story was going to start. There was no action. Everything was static, apart from that journey, and a return. All other characters were periferal, apart from that woman who… There is fear and despair, misunderstanding, sacrifice and near death. And I didn’t think it was what I should be writing. If this was a romance: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl, it would be fine, but that is not what this series is about, well, only partially. It is not what the reader would expect.
But I couldn’t stop writing. What should I do? I had to let it all out, otherwise I knew the words would linger, festering in my brain. Perhaps I should remove them and use them somewhere else – that historical romance that seems to be waiting to be written, sometimes in the future? I carried on. I knew that some of this plotline would remain, but most would need to be dumped. After all, this was the first draft, that’s what they are for.
Four weeks in and I had reached 30,000 words and, with relief, I could see the main plot approaching. I remembered my outline. I got it out, to work out how many of these troublesome words I would need to delete. I did some calculations, stared at the outline, re-did the calculations. According to my plan, I was at exactly the right point!
My rough outline had included this long ramble through the psyches of my characters. I still think it is too much, an indulgence on my part, but I couldn’t say that it was a mistake, it was there in black and white.
I will continue to write. I hope the words come as easily as they have so far. It has been easy, with nothing much going on. Soon life will start again and I will be forced away from my computer.
And the opposite of Writer’s (I’ve checked the apostrophe) block? It’s something called hypergraphia, a recognised condition connected with epilepsy. I don’t think it’s as serious as that. Or there is graphorrhea: writing in excessive amounts, sometimes incoherently. That sounds more like it. Is it because I have a plan? Perhaps it just means that I am becoming a more experienced writer. Just don’t let it stop.
Now, I must go, I have another couple of thousand words I need to get off my chest.
As a writer of books set in the tenth century, it is not often that I get the chance to visit places that survive from that period. Even the landscape can change: stretches of coast have disappeared, rivers have changed their course and towns have appeared where once the land was empty, or disappeared only to be rediscovered by archaeologists. Man has had such an influence on the land, how do we even know that an apparently immovable mountain looks the same as it did a thousand years ago? Perhaps it was once covered in forest or mining has changed the outline.
Recently I visited a place that remains comparatively unchanged. Beneath the floor of Ripon Cathedral, in North Yorkshire, is a crypt. It was built in 672AD, so it was already old by the tenth century. It was built by St Wilfrid and survived several rebuildings of the church and then cathedral above.
St Wilfrid was born in Northumbria around 633AD probably from an aristocratic family. When he was about fourteen he left home, travelling to the court of King Oswiu. He was sent to study at the recently founded monastery at Lindisfarne. After a few years he moved to Canterbury. He then travelled to Rome with Bishop Biscop and spent time in Lyons. He returned to Northumbria in 658AD and was given the monastery recently founded at Ripon by Alhfrith, sub king and son of Oswiu. The monks had come from Melrose Abbey and followed the Irish monastic customs. After his travels Wilfrid favoured the Roman version of Christianity and introduced the Rule of Saint Benedict to Ripon. He expelled several “Celtic” monks, including St Cuthbert.
Wilfrid took part in the Synod of Whitby in 664AD, when the Roman method of calculating the date of Easter was adopted, largely due to Wilfrid’s speech. He was nominated as Bishop, but considered the Anglo-Saxon bishops of Northumbria unqualified to censecrate him. He travelled to Compiègne, to be consecrated by the Bishop of Paris. After various delays Wilfrid became Bishop of York in 669AD. He travelled widely, to Rome again and throughout England, converting the South Saxons and building churches throughout the country. After he died in 710AD he was buried in the church he had built in Ripon. More about this energetic saint here.
The church at Ripon, and Hexham which he also built, were aisled basilicas, similar to those common on the continent. They were also the first buildings in England since the Romans to be built of stone. In fact most of the stone was taken from Hadrian’s wall (for Hexham) and probably the Roman town at Alborough (which we also visited) for Ripon. The only part of the original church surviving today is the crypt. It was built by Wilfrid to resemble the crypts he had seen in Rome or perhaps as a copy of the tomb in which Christ was buried.
The crypt survived because it is completely separate from the building above, attached only at the entrance and exit. Wilfrid’s church stood nearly three hundred years until it was burnt to the ground in 948AD during a dispute between King Eadred and the Archbishop of York. A later Minster was destroyed in 1069 in the Harrowing of the North by William I and the present church was built by Archbishop Roger de Pont l’Eveque in 1180. In 1836 the Minster became a Cathedral and in 1861 there was major restoration by George Gilbert Scott.
My interest in the crypt was drawn by that significant date of 948AD. This is the year I have reached in my series of books about Byrhtnoth, and the event was just too good to ignore. I had already written the scenes, so I was interested to see if my imagination matched the facts. The place seemed smaller than I expected, but everything else fitted. Not too much editing required! Here is a brief extract from my WIP. Byrhtnoth has just fallen down the steps and makes his way along the entrance corridor, searching for illumination.
The height was adequate for a normal man, but not me. The roof was flat; large slabs laid across it. I felt the joints beneath my fingers as I shuffled forward. The passage was narrow, the rock smooth with the passage of many bodies. The walls pressed in, like the sides of a grave. I imagined myself trapped forever in the cold and dark. My questing hands encountered a blank wall ahead, and I started to panic. “The corridor bends to the right.” The monk’s calm voice came from behind. It sounded far away. I stretched out an arm into empty space. “I’m there.” I tried to hide the tremor in my voice. “Carry on. Watch out for a step, just before the end of the corridor. There should be a lamp there and a jug of oil.” Although I moved slowly, I tripped on the step and fell against the rough wall. I waited for my heart to slow before finding the lamp in a niche together with a bowl of sweet-smelling oil. I fumbled in my pouch for my flint. I blinked as the spark ignited, then lit the wick of the waiting lamp. Light flooded the corridor.
I’m not going to tell you why he is there, or what happens. You will have to wait for the book! The corridor leads to the main room, through an arch into another, then up another set of stairs to the exit. Luckily there weren’t too many people around, so I had plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere. I even took my husband through the crypt, explaining what (I imagined) took place. He is probably glad I don’t get the chance to do that very often!
The visit to Ripon was an short break on our way back from a holiday in Scotland. I’ll write more about that another time and how it has inspired some of the action in the next book (number four) of the Byrhtnoth Chronicles.
This Blog has been quiet for a while. I started writing a post about my visit to the Anglo-Saxon exhibition at the British Library – it was great by the way – but then fate intervened.
My WIP, Bright Axe, was ready for publication. Why wait? I planned to Self Publish via KDP. I was feeling my way. I didn’t know how long it would take – if I could even do it myself. Everyone said it was easy!
As it turned out, most of it was. I used Kindle Create to produce the e-book, no problems. The paperback took more work, it took a lot of formatting to get the manuscript into something suitable to turn into a pdf. I downloaded the instructions from Amazon and, as long as you take things slowly, step by step, they were very useful. I had problems with page numbering, but it worked in the end. I’m not sure if the margins are correct, but it looks OK. I wrestled with some pesky invisible blank pages and eventually got rid of them.
I had purchased my own ISBN numbers; I am now a publisher called Madder Press
I had a cover ready. That would do for the ebook, but I needed a back and a spine for the paperback. I returned to the designer, Cathy Helms and we put everything together. (There might be a later post on how to write a blurb – as any author will tell you, this is more difficult than writing an entire book!)
I set a day for publication. Not too soon but not too far ahead. I ticked the box to have the ebook available for pre-order and learned that you can’t do that for the paperback. I have ordered a proof copy and will publish “on the day”. I will probably have to make corrections, so the job is not quite finished.
But most of it is done. The ebook is ready to order here. It is priced at £3.99. The paperback will be £8.99.