Visiting the past – Ripon

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.

Ripon Cathedral, west front


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.

Interior of Ripon Cathedral. The entrance to the crypt is just behind the statue, you can see the sign at the end of the aisle.

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.

Steps leading down to the anglo-saxon crypt

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.

Main chamber of the crypt, home to relicts collected by St Wilfrid and later his own bones.
The way out of the crypt, but not today!



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.

View of Ripon Cathedral from the bedroom window of our hotel.
Advertisements

Announcement!


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.

I hope you enjoy it.

Looking Forward.

I can’t believe my first book was published exactly a year ago, today. It seems like only a few days, but at the same time, like a lifetime. It didn’t set the world on fire, but I sold some copies – I actually got some royalties! People I know, who read it, said nice things – it would have been even better if some of them had posted a review somewhere, but never mind, I had a handful, all positive, all four stars. Encouraging.

But that is the past. This post is about the future. I have been busy since the start of the year reading/rearranging/editing book three. I was shocked when I looked at it and discovered it was a whole year since I finished the first draft. It has been an interesting experience, as this was not a book that I wrote from start to finish. I wrote a section towards the end, then the bit before that. I wrote the end and then the beginning – or was it the other way round? I put it to one side because of the problems I had with book two. It was over 110k words.

Having sorted book 2 (It’s away for a final edit, if you’re interested.) the first job was to identify the new start. 13, 639 words were cut with one chop of the axe! I didn’t want to do it, it was my favourite bit, but I knew it wasn’t right. I have printed out the whole thing, reading it section by section, making notes and corrections, then putting it back into the correct order. I got rid of the ending (3,000 words). I’m more than halfway through and shedding words all over the place. If I get rid of too much, I might even have to put more in!

Of course, the reason I’m getting on so well, is because this is just displacement activity. I should be learning about KDP and that sort of thing. Will I finish book three before I have to return to book two? I do like a cliffhanger!

This post is supposed to be about looking forward.
So, some predictions:
1. Book 2 (Bright Axe) will be out this year. I don’t know when, but earlier rather than later.
2. Book 3 (I know the name – it starts with Bright – but I won’t reveal it yet.) might, and it depends on how easy this self publishing lark is, be out later in the year.
3. I haven’t even started book four, so that will definitely NOT be out this year. Next year? Perhaps.
4. NaNoWriMo2018 book. I haven’t looked at it yet. At only 50k it will need a lot more work. Published? This year, next year, sometime, never?
5. Then what? Who knows? Answers on the back of a postcard.

I hope we’ll all be here this time next year to find out if I was right.

WIP. Notes for first part of Book Three. If anyone can decypher anything interesting, please let me know – I can’t!

Do you need a Structural Edit?

As mentioned in my last post my second book, Bright Axe, is getting close to publication. Why has it taken me so long? Basically, because I have been re-writing.

It is now over a year since I thought it was finished. I sent it out to a couple of beta readers. While I waited for a reply I made a start on book three. That was when the trouble began – at the start. Where did book three start? Bright Axe had two different endings, or rather I was unable to decide where it ended. I hoped my beta readers would tell me.

They were happy with both endings. It was what came before that was the problem. What was worse, they didn’t agree with what was wrong. I knew I was in big trouble. I won’t go into details but these were major plot points. If I’m honest I already had doubts myself. I didn’t know what to do, except that I needed help.

What I needed was an editor. But which editor? Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will know I had a nasty experience with the editor of Bright Sword. Could I trust anyone with my book? I asked around. Someone looked good but was too busy. Someone made a recommendation but someone else said they were a waste of money. Finally I found someone, on Twitter, of all places.

It was something retweeted by Matthew Harffy, another dark ages writer who I have known since he was a struggling self published author. Actually, I don’t think he was ever struggling, because his Bernicia Chronicles, set three hundred years before mine are so good. This was the subject of that important tweet; a link to a blog post explaining why Matthew’s Serpent Sword, the first of the series, was so well written. You can read it here.

The article was written by Andrew Noakes and he is a Historical Fiction Editor. Was this the editor I had been waiting for? I had a look around his website, it was clear and well laid out and the articles interesting (only a few then – there are a lot more now.) There was an invitation to join his email list, I signed up, having decided to lurk and observe for a while before making contact.

Within hours, I received an email from him, thanking me for subscribing and asking about my work, to enable him to “provide useful content”. Well, if you ask an author to tell you about their work…! Within a few days I had signed up for an Editors Report (This is now what is described on the website as an Editors Critique.)

The result was a writer’s worst nightmare – and exactly what I needed. It ran to four pages of closely targeted text, starting with a summery, mostly complimentary but pointing out the main problem, the fragmentary structure. It went into detail about this, going into the storylines, narrative and plot. It went through the manuscript covering, in particular, the points that worried me. There were notes about characterisation; motivation and conflict and setting. It covered everything. I now knew exactly what was wrong. What it didn’t tell me was how to make it better.

For a more experienced writer, this would be more than enough to repair the damage. I was not an experienced writer – this was only my second book, after all. After a lot of thought and head scratching, I knew I couldn’t do this on my own. I needed help. I signed up for a full Structural Edit. The price of the initial report was deducted from the cost of this which made it not quite as expensive as it might have been.

What I received became the bible that enabled me to write the best book I was capable of. It went into more detail about the faults and showed me ways to correct them. Together with the odd email consultation, I discovered my protagonist’s motivation – my manta became “What does Byrhtnoth want?”. I learned which parts of the plot had to go and what to replace them with. More detail was needed in one place, less in another. More fighting, less sex. Best of all, there was a Chapter Analysis, going through the entire book, chapter by chapter, explaining what worked and what didn’t.

It was not so much a re-write as writing a completely new book, from scratch. There were a few things we disagreed on – there is still plot that I was unable to discard, because I felt half the book would collapse if it disappeared. The book now has a proper ending, which turned out to be a combination of the two original endings. Characters changed as I put them under more pressure; some had more strength than I imagined, others showed a side I hadn’t previously been aware of.

I had found the editor I had been looking for. How I wish I had found him earlier, Bright Sword would have been better than it was, but that is water under the bridge.

As well as improving this book, I have learned so much more from Andrew. To look at my writing in a more intelligent way and question every word. If it doesn’t progress the plot it is out, however beautifully written a scene may be. I have discovered that I can actually do it – given the incentive I can rewrite. Whole plotlines that seemed set in stone have changed; scenes that I have loved were obliterated.

Bright Axe is a different book, I hope a better book. I have often heard authors praising their editor. Now I know why. Not only do they improve your book, sometimes they can change your life. That is what a good structural edit can do. Thank you Andrew.

How I won NaNoWriMo

Any writers reading this will know why there have been no posts for the last month. For those who haven’t experienced the terrors (and joys) of NaNoWriMo, let me explain.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, when writers with too much time on their hands write a novel – in a month – in November. Not quite a novel, but the first draft of one, 50,000 words to be precise. There are rules, although no one checks if you stick to them. The novel must be new, not something you are already working on. You are allowed to plan it beforehand, but must not start writing until the first of November. You finish on the 30th, or before if you reach that important 50k. You can enter the number of words you write each day and compare you total with other writers taking part (your buddies). When you reach the target, you must upload your work to validate the number of words and “win”.

What do you get if you win? There’s a certificate to download and … that’s about it.

No one checks what you have written. It could be complete rubbish. It probably is! So why do it? Why put your life on hold for a month to do something so strange? Well, for one reason, you are a writer and anything that forces you to write is good.

I had heard other writers talk about NaNoWriMo and last year considered taking part – and dismissed it. I was in the final stages of publishing Bright Sword, correcting proofs etc. This year I thought “Why Not?”. Bright Axe is close to the end. I was sick of Byrhtnoth and his problems. I needed a rest. A change is as good as a rest, they say and I had an idea that had been simmering for a while. I thought I could manage the 1,667 words a day that would be needed. So I signed up.

I made my plans. If I was to do this I needed to get rid of as many distractions as possible. I was involved with a First World War project, researching local men who had died. With the centenary of the armistice on 11th November, I had a deadline. I mentally altered the deadline to 31st October. Anything else outstanding I got out of the way, or delayed it to December. This explains why there were no posts in October either. There were certain events I could not avoid – a whole day at the NEC promoting Family History Societies. I thought I could cope by writing more the day before and after. I did.

As it turned out, there were only two days when I didn’t write at all. That day and another when I binged wrote the day before (nearly 3,000 words) and then had other things to do. I tried but I was just too tired. Apart from that I forced myself to the computer and wrote. Sometimes not enough, sometimes over the daily target of 1,667 words. It evened out, as you can see from the graph that measured my progress.

So what did I learn from the experience?
The main reason for doing it was to see if I could do it – I found I could.
I learned that I could control my writing. There were certain days when I had more time, so I wrote more on those days and didn’t worry when I couldn’t write, for whatever reason.
I discovered there was a limit to how much I could write a day – somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 words. There was no point in writing more, it would be rubbish and I would be unable to write the next day.

I found it liberating. Doing something like this means there is no time to go back to correct things. Realise you have missed an important chapter? Never mind, write it now, you can put it in the right place later. Have I already written this event? Never mind, keep going, delete it later. Need some research? Don’t stop, add a note “Find date later”

It was also fun to write something different. I have written two books about Byrhtnoth and a draft of the third. Was I getting tired? Could I even write something, anything, else?
I won’t go into details, but this book is less serious. Still historical, but with time travel. Some of it is set in the present day – literally – it started on Halloween 2018. I could have a character say Okay. I could describe someone by saying they looked like some well known actor.
I enjoyed myself.

When I wasn’t writing, I was reading, one of the Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon. Not to improve my writing, but because it was time travel. My work is set, partly, in Scotland, so it was useful to pick up some of the accent. The time period is not a hundred years away as well. She includes a lot of details of daily life – too much some might say – but useful for someone who has been inhabiting the tenth century for so long.

I am pleased to say my manuscript includes no stone circles or bare-chested highlanders. There is a pirate (of sorts) and a dog and that is all I am prepared to say. 

I don’t know what it is like, I haven’t read it yet. This is recommended by the organisers of NaNoWriMo. When you finish, you must put it away for a month – at least – before looking at it.
I know it is nowhere near being a proper book, although I know it has a beginning and an end and some interesting ideas in between, not necessarily in the correct order!

It doesn’t matter. I have something I can work on later. Perhaps it will never be published.
What it has done is teach me a lot about writing – or at least about how I write.
It has given me a big sense of achievement. I tried and I succeeded. Some of my “writing buddies” didn’t, all for very genuine reasons. Some did. I think the competitive element is important, although your main competitor is yourself.

Finally, it stops you thinking about Christmas until the start of December – still too early, but better than the alternative.

Publication – six months on

Was it only six months since my first book, Bright Sword, was published? It must have been, I remember the freezing cold of my book launch, when my Anglo-Saxon warriors administered mead to the handful of customers who braved the icy streets. Now we are in the midst of a heat wave and thunderstorms.

For all this time friends have asked, “How is it selling?” and I reply “I haven’t the faintest idea.” The only indication is the graph on my Amazon Author Central page – a jagged line for the first couple of months then a general decline. There are occasional upward turns, there has been on the last few days. Why? I checked the price and discovered Amazon have reduced the price, again.

The book is now £3.72, cheaper than the e-book at £3.99. Why does nobody tell me these things so I can pass on the news? Should I be checking the price every day? There’s probably something I can set up that will tell me.

Anyway, I now know exactly how many books I have sold – at least up to the end of June. Yesterday I received my first Royalty Statement from my publisher (I had to rescue the e-mail from my spam folder – good job I check it occasionally) They sent me money! Not a fortune but it proves that someone has bought my book. Several someones and not all of them family and friends! The bad news, for me, is that there are still plenty of copies in stock. But it’s good news for anyone thinking of buying a copy, especially at (did I mention the price?) only £3.72 – see here.

What have I learnt over these six months? The first thing is that I am not very good at selling myself. I haven’t even managed to get my book into my local library, despite giving them a free copy. Did they not think it good enough or is it languishing forgotten on a shelf somewhere?

I already knew this. I am the sort of person who has a tendency to say “I’ve written a book, it’s not bad, but it could be better. Would you like to read it? That’s all right, it’s probably not your cup of tea.” I must be more assertive. “Buy my book or I’ll kidnap your husband/children/cat and torture them until you read it and post a five-star review.” A bit over the top? Perhaps. I must try to find a happy medium – slightly more posts on twitter/facebook?

On the other hand, I have been writing, rewriting and editing book two. Bright Axe is now finished. It will go back to the editor soon – more about that another time. Then I’ll have to think about publication. Do I go back to the publisher of Bright Sword? Have I sold enough copies of the first book? If they offer me the same (partnership) deal should I accept? Would I be better off with straight self-publishing? It would mean more work, but more control about what happens. Do I put more effort into Bright Sword or concentrate on publishing Bright Axe?

So many decisions to make.

Recently I was thinking about the future:

About book two.

About when to return to the first draft of book three.

About plans for book four and whether the story will finish there.

I had a sudden revelation. If I finish the Byrhtnoth Chronicles with book four – what will I write next?

It was that, not the receipt of a royalty payment or anything else, that stopped me in my tracks.

I am no longer someone who has had a go at writing a book. I am a writer – and I’m not sure I can stop.

Where do you go to, my darlings?

As a writer of fiction, you make things up. That’s not really a surprise, but the fact is that those things become real, at least to the author. To the reader as well, I hope, but what happens if they never reach the reader?

You invent a world, and the events in it. There is a plot and you must decide what happens next. You need a scene. It must continue from the scene before and lead on to the one after. You decide who will appear in the scene and what they do. How does it start and how does it end? You test snatches of conversation, imagine the venue – should you add some description? Eventually, when you have it complete in your head, you write it down. At least that is how I do it.

You continue with the next scene, and the next. You end up with a book. You start to edit. You rearrange words, delete some, correct the spelling and get rid of those words that you use too much. You read it through, aloud if possible. You edit it again, you send it to beta readers and you make changes – perhaps.

By now you have read it so often, you know the book almost as well as your own life. The memories of your characters have become your memories; a part of your life.

Then you employ an Editor!

An editor, if he is any good, will tell you what is wrong with your book. He will tell you to change this, delete that. A character is delaying the plot, another needs more of the action. What does he want? Why is she doing that? You will want to ignore the advice. Must I really get rid of that scene, that beautiful scene that says exactly what I wanted to say, the beautiful description, the words that will tear at your reader’s heart? Yes, you must kill your darlings!

But where do they go, those memories? Do they disappear in a puff of smoke? Perhaps they remain, if the reason they were killed was lack of space, they remain as back story, part of your character’s life. But some die completely. The plot is changed, a relationship is destroyed, a life takes an unexpected turn, characters merge to become someone new.

Perhaps they will be recycled, names changed, in another book. But even if the characters forget, I will not. It may be that when I have written more books, the “might have been” scenes will fade away. For now, they linger and I mourn them.

I have been rewriting, it has been a long process, although I hadn’t realised it had been so long since I posted anything here. I am close to the end – an end which I have now identified – that was one of the problems.

Now I must put it all back together. I haven’t checked the word count, I know it is large. There will be more editing. Will I have to remove more “darlings”? I hope not, I don’t think I can stand the anguish.

Editing in the garden