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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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.

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.

Christmas is coming – three times over.

Christmas is approaching rapidly, but I am unprepared. I am writing and find it difficult to stop.

But it is not going smoothly; those word updates do not measure an even progress from start to finish. I am darting about from place to place, never knowing where I am.

I never thought it would be easy. The approach of Book One to publication day. The pause with Book Two, awaiting feedback and more editing. The start of Book Three.

It is Book Three that is causing problems, perhaps because I started planning. Not major planning, just dividing the book into chunks – I have six, or maybe seven. See, I can’t do planning properly! A few weeks ago I wrote here about having found an antagonist. I wanted to give him a trial, so I wrote a scene, then another. This section of the book, for various reasons, I planned to write in the present tense. It would be interspersed with other POVs. So that I didn’t become confused, I decided to write the whole of this section, before moving back to past tense. It must have worked, because I then had difficulties shaking off the present tense. I had 9,000 words.

I knew what came next, I continued, another 9,000 words. The ideas were coming thick and fast, I wanted to carry on. Nothing wrong with this, you might say, in fact it’s great.

Except – I’ve got to stop. This section is towards the end of the book. I think I know where the end comes, but more and more words come spilling out and the end gets further away. What about what comes before? The main part of the book. Not only is it not yet written, I’m not even sure where it starts! With regret, I have forced myself to stop.

I have returned to the start. I have rewritten an abandoned ending to book two as the start of book three. I have written more, I think it is going OK.

But – As I write, the abandoned characters at the end keep calling to me, “Come back, we want to carry on.” While the same characters, at an earlier point in the story shout, “No, us first. We might change everything and you will never exist.” It is difficult enough, but the book covers a year in time, from winter to winter, Christmas to Christmas. Today, I had to stop and think – would he be wearing those clothes, or did he acquire them later. One Christmas is happy, the other not. There is snow one year and not the other.

And then there is real life, Christmas is coming. Will my mother end up with a sword. Will Byrhtnoth find a box set of Vikings DVDs under his tree?

Should I give up and spend the next month in bed?

No, because the voices are calling and I cannot silence them.

Box set for Byrhtnoth?

Prize Winning Author

Have you noticed? You look at the website or blog of a well known author, and some not so well known authors, and are faced with a sidebar full of awards. Their biography includes every single literary prize they have one from the year dot and the cover of their latest book proclaims it to be “prize winning” – occasionally it actually states which prize! Has anyone ever bought a book because the author has won a prize?

Do I sound jealous? I shouldn’t. I too have won a writing prize.

Last Monday evening, it was the Rugby Family History Group AGM and Christmas Social. As a member of the committee I was armed with my report – how far we had got with the transcription of a local Parish Register; how our First World War Project was going (300 men researched, 100+ to go) more volunteers wanted, and what was happening on the website (not a lot). We dozed through the financial report and looked elsewhere when asked if there were any volunteers to replace the secretary, who was retiring at that meeting. Another report concerned the Magazine. As always the editor complained of lack of copy, please could someone write something for the next issue. Because I’m a helpful type, I can usually manage to produce something when she gets desperate

Some years ago, to encourage submissions, we set up The Harry Batchelor Prize for the best article in the previous years magazines (three issues). This is to commemorate our first Chairman, and is presented at the end of the AGM – before we let the hordes loose on the food – provided, of course, by the committee. The prize is judged by someone from the local library, a local writer and last years winner. I got out my camera to take photographs, to add to the website. The envelope was opened, imaginary drums rolled, the commended and highly commended articles were announced. I lined up my camera. The winner was an article entitled “But what was he doing in  Ireland?”.  Must be that chap with the Irish ancestors.

It wasn’t. It was me! I had forgotten all about that one.

I stood up to receive my prize. Cameras flashed,  well, one did and someone had the foresight to pick up mine, and take a picture. Champagne flowed – someone later opened the wine box!

And I became a prize winning author.

Shall I add it to the side bar? Winner of the Harry Batchelor Prize, 2017

And 2013, 2011 and 2009 – did I mention I’ve won before? I try not to do it too often – it means I have to act as judge next year!

Someone to Hate

If you are writing a book, you know who your Protagonist is – the person whose story you are telling – The Hero. In my case this is Byrhtnoth. He is searching for something – a sword. Some characters help him (friends), others oppose (enemies). Others are padding – sorry – there to help the story along. But where is the Antagonist? The Moriarty to my Holmes? The Voldemort to my Harry Potter?

I thought I knew who my Antagonist was, but I have been mislead.  I can’t continue with my original plan, due to history. He is a real person, he cannot die before his time, I cannot kill him off at my convenience.

The real antagonist was there in the shadows, hiding until the time was right. He was there in book one, but disappeared. He returns in book two, briefly and does something nasty. I planned to have him killed in book three, in a particularly horrible way, but have given him a reprieve. He is just too bad to throw away!

I nearly missed it. He is so slippery that I didn’t notice that I got his name wrong in the first draft of book two, but now I recognise him.  When I started writing I picked names at random, his was one of them, but now I see how right it is. It has even given me the title for book three. Not that I am going to give away that information yet – things may still change.

I must use him carefully. Like salt in food, a small amount enhances the dish, too much spoils it. I must get to know him, why is he so nasty? Is he completely bad or does he have some redeeming features? Is he kind to kittens? Is he capable of change? Because without change he is a pantomime villain. Just as a hero is boring without his flaws, he must have a good side.

I find the best way to find out about my characters is to just write. I have written a scene. It is from somewhere in the middle of book three, protagonist and antagonist together. Already I have discovered something about the relationship. I look forward to working with him. Of course I say “Him”, for convenience. He might be a she!

So, eventually, I have started book three. Setting a target to write 1,000 words a day or 7,000 a week worked before. I didn’t always hit it, but explaining why not, forced me to write some creative blog posts.

Bright Sword is published on 28th January – that’s ten weeks away. 10 times 7,000 is 70,000 – that’s the best part of a book!

Will I make it?