A Christmas Feast

This post is part of the Historical Writers Forum Christmas Blog Hop, celebrating Jolabokaflod, the Icelandic tradition of giving books as gifts on Christmas Eve. My gift (and also a free giveaway at the end) isn’t an extract from a book, but something new. It is set at Christmas AD 947 between the end of the second book of the Byrhtnoth Chronicles, Bright Axe, and the third, Bright Blade.

It is a wedding. The ceremony has been performed and the happy couple and their friends return to the Hall for the Wedding Feast.

Hild filled two cups with mead and presented them to us. We both took a large mouthful. Saewynn nearly choked on hers, I patted her back, and we laughed. I took her arm and led her into the hall. I sat down in my great, carved chair, and Saewynn sat on the bench beside me.

            “You need your own chair. You’re too far away there. Edward, find some cushions for my wife.” There, I had said it, my wife. “On second thoughts,” I bent and lifted her from her seat and onto my lap,” there’s plenty of room for two. We can talk without shouting; it’s going to get noisy very quickly.” The mead horn was passing down the tables.

            “I can’t sit here; it’s the lord’s chair.”

            “And you are the lord’s wife.” I gave her a lingering kiss and cheering filled the hall, offering toasts to our happiness.

            “Is this seat free?” asked Wulfstan.

            “I think it must be. Sit down and have a drink.” Saewynn filled his cup and helped herself to more mead.

            “Not too much of that, it’s going to be a long night.” She looked up at me and blushed. I realised what I had said. “The feast I meant,” I said with a grin.

            “Of course.” She stared down into the golden liquid and replaced the cup on the table.

            “Can I have some bread?” I opened my mouth, and after a pause, she broke off a piece, still warm from the oven, and placed it on my tongue. “Thank you.”

            The cheering grew louder when servants brought in a loaded platter.

            “It’s a boar’s head,” whispered Saewynn.

            “Where did you find that? There hasn’t been a boar hunt around here for ages.” I watched as they carefully placed it on the table before us. It gleamed in the light from the candles; a dark golden-brown reclining on a bed of fruit and vegetables.

            “Lord Ethelwine brought it,” said Hild. “He had to show me how to cook it.”

            “I wondered where you had got to,” I said as Ealdorman Athelstan’s son slipped onto the bench. “I didn’t know you were interested in cooking.”

            “A present from my mother. She wouldn’t let me leave until I could recite the instructions properly.”

            “How is she? She didn’t look well when I saw her last.”

            “Feeling better, but not as she should be.”

            “I’m sorry to hear that.”

            “Is that brawn?” Saewynn had been watching more dishes appear.

            “I remember you said you liked it,” Hild replied. “That was why we’re a bit late; the jelly refused to set. We had to dip the bowl in the river.”

            “I’m sure it will taste just as good.”

            “None for me.” I shuddered. I knew it would contain the brains and all the other odds and ends. “I’ll have some proper meat.” Someone had stuck a sharp knife in the pig’s head at a jaunty angle. I pulled it out, carved off a chunk of meat and tasted it.

            “Perfectly cooked. I’ll have some of those baked apples as well. Do you want some?” I asked Saewynn.

            “I’ll help myself from your plate. That’s far too much for one person.”

            “I’ve got a big appetite.” I pretended to nibble her ear. She pushed me away with a smile. “That reminds me, Hild, save me an ear, they look nice and crispy.”

            “The secret’s in covering them, not letting them burn.”

            “Shut up, Ethelwine.” I raised my cup to him and started on the meat. Hild served him some and continued to Wulfstan and Edith. Brother Michael nodded eagerly; I didn’t suppose they had much boar in the monastery. More slices were piled on a platter and passed along the tables.

            Saewynn searched in her bag. The movement distracted me; perhaps I had made a mistake sitting her on my lap. It could get embarrassing.

            “Pass me more bread, Wulfstan.” I took a bite and stared down the hall.

            “I knew it was in there somewhere.” Saewynn held up a small horn spoon. “Useful for feasts. I don’t want to miss any of this delicious jelly.”

            “Careful you don’t drop some on your dress,” said Ethelwine. “It’s a beautiful colour; where did you find it? It looks like silk.”

            “Byrhtnoth brought it back from Bebbanburg. Someone gave him a tunic made from it.

            “They can’t have liked him much. That yellow wouldn’t suit him at all.”

            “It split the only time I wore it, thank goodness. Someone said it would come in handy one day, and it has.” I remembered who had told me that and returned my attention to my plate.

            “Try some of this.” Saewynn held up the spoon. It held chopped meat in a clear slimy liquid.

            “No thank you, I’ve got enough.”

            “Please?” Her head tipped, and her eyes pleaded.

            “Leola would like it.” The dog’s head leaned on the arm of my chair. Her eyes held precisely the same expression. I knew when I was beaten. I tore off a piece of meat and Leola snapped it up, nearly taking my fingers with it. I opened my mouth and let Saewynn spoon in the delicacy. I swallowed. The taste wasn’t bad, it was well seasoned and contained a mixture of herbs, but I disliked the slimy way it slid down my throat.

            “Very nice.” I grabbed my cup of mead and took a large gulp. The flavours mingled and stuck in my throat; I gagged and reached for the bread.

            “Have some more.” Saewynn offered me another spoonful with a cheeky grin.

            “Help me, Wulfstan,” I begged. “She’s trying to poison me.”

            “Sorry, she’s your responsibility now.” Laughing, he turned to Edith and served her a piece of fish.

            Saewynn waited with her spoonful of food and raised eyebrows.

            “If you insist.” I opened my mouth and closed my eyes. Nothing happened. Cautiously I opened one eye. The spoon was empty, and Saewynn was licking her lips.

            “Sorry, I couldn’t resist.”

            I watched her tongue and the sheen on her lips. I leaned forward. “I want to kiss you,” I said, quietly so no one could hear, “but I think the taste would put me off.” She looked disappointed.

            I cut off a piece of cheese, stored since the summer to become hard and strong. “Do you want some of this?”

            “Yes, please. Hild said it was the best she’d ever made.” I handed her some and swallowed the rest. She took a bite and nodded.

            “Thank goodness we agree on something. Try some of this apple; it goes well with the cheese.  I picked up the slice; it fell to pieces in my fingers. Her lips opened, and I smeared them with the paste. Her tongue emerged and cleaned it away, then licked the excess from my fingers; slowly and thoroughly. Her dark eyes, so close to mine, issued a challenge.

            “Could you pass the cheese?” Ethelwine interrupted.

            I hesitated. “Later,” I promised and passed the plate to Ethelwine. I squeezed my wife and surveyed the new food that had arrived.

*

News of the combined wedding and Christmas feast had spread. Some of our neighbours arrived with a scop who was passing through the area. Hild found them a place at the board; there was plenty of food to spare. Wulfstan went to talk to them, while the scop tuned his instrument. It was an opportunity to discuss arrangements for the coming year; which meadows would be opened when, and the date the animals would be moved. I should take more interest. When were the official decisions made? That was for the future. I pulled another shred of meat from the now severely depleted skull, and called for ale; I had had enough mead for now. I moved Saewynn to my other knee; the first had become numb and settled down to listen to the song of the scop.

            He was good. His voice was melodious, and he added some exciting variations to the old stories. Perhaps it was time I had my own scop. There were cheers when he finished, and I invited him to help himself to food and ale. Would he like to stay in our hall for the rest of the Christmas celebrations? He agreed; it was not the time of year to be travelling the roads. We settled on a suitable payment, and he went back to his place and started telling riddles.

            Others joined in, and soon the hall was ringing with laughter as answers were suggested and rejected. Most of them were well known, but there was always someone new to fool and women to be embarrassed by the crude interpretations. I was careful to protect my bride from the worst, but it seemed she knew all the answers and giggled at the worst misunderstandings; the result of spending too much time with soldiers. At least she would not be shy when we retired to the private chamber. I hoped it would be soon. I bent to kiss her smooth dark hair.

            “Ouch!” Something sharp pricked my face. “What was that?” I inspected the crown that still circled her head. Slightly askew, the greenery had wilted somewhat by now, and I noticed a sprig of holly, bright with berries.

            “Sorry. I told Edith it would cause trouble.” She reached up and pulled it from her head. I pushed back her hair.

            “No damage done.” The sound in the hall changed. The laughter had died away and replaced by the whispers of women. “What’s happened?” I asked Saewynn.

            “This is what they’ve been waiting for. I must throw the crown.”

            “I remember. The maid who catches it will be the next to marry. That was why none left when the men got rowdy.” I watched the women jostle for position. One practised jumping, some eyed their favoured men, while others just looked hopeful, or desperate. As they waited, men made wagers as to who would win, as if it was some horse race.  They gathered in the space between the tables, and the scop escaped to a distant corner. Inga handed her baby to one of the older women looking on. I wouldn’t have expected her to take part; Redwald had only died that summer. Perhaps she missed a man in her bed, although from the talk around the village she didn’t lack that, just a husband. She pushed one of the other girls out of the way and staked a place in the front rank.

            “You’ve got to do this properly,” I told Saewynn. “Do you have anyone in mind?”

            “Certainly not. I will close my eyes, and God will choose.”

            “To be fair, then, you need to throw high. Stand up, on the chair.” I lifted her high and held on to her legs. My head was close to her hip. I breathed in the scent of her hot body.

            “Everyone ready?” There were shouts and remarks from some of the men. “Close your eyes,” I told Saewynn. “Now!” The crown soared into the hot, smoky air; over the flames of the hearth, almost to the roof. What would we do if it landed on one of the rafters? It seemed to hang a moment before dropping towards the women. There were high-pitched shrieks and the sound of ripping cloth. It disappeared from view.

            “Who caught it? Can you see?” Saewynn jumped up and down. I pulled her down before excitement sent her tumbling onto the boar’s head. There were arguments and complaints before the crowd opened to reveal Hild. She held a jug of ale in one hand. She had been clearing things from the tables; in the other, she held the crown. She looked at it. She hadn’t even been taking part in the competition. She looked around the hall in confusion and dropped the prize. One of the girls scrambled to claim it. Another protested.

            “No!” My voice echoed around the hall. “God decided, and no one can question His decision.” I saw Edith nod in agreement. “Hild has won the competition. Someone, relieve her of that jug and find her somewhere to sit down. You can bring me the jug; I need a drink after all that excitement.” I sat back in the chair. “Do you know if she has any plans?”

            “Didn’t you see? Who she looked at first?”

            “No? Who?”

            “Godric.”

            “Ah. I wonder what he thinks of that. I must have a word with him.”

            “Not now,” Saewynn stopped me, “another time.”  

            Eventually, everyone calmed down. Some of the girls remained in a huddle, discussing the result. Villagers with young children hurried them away; some were already asleep. A couple of men started to argue; no one had bet on Hild, and they disagreed on how to split the money.

            “You must be tired; it’s been a long day.” Saewynn’s head rested on my shoulder. She gave a lazy nod. “They’re waiting for us to leave.” She sat up.

            “Are they?” she looked around apprehensively.

            “I need to stretch my legs. You must have eaten a lot; you’ve completely flattened me. I won’t be long; you’ve probably got things to do.” I didn’t know what, but the women had probably arranged something. I kissed the top of her head and stood up. “I’ll see you soon,” I told my wife, and went to congratulate Hild, and thank her for organising the feast.

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Want to find out what happens next? Not immediately next – we must allow the happy couple a little privacy!

Will Hild get Godric to propose? Can Inga find a man, and if so, whose?

Do the bride and groom settle down happily to married life?

And how does Saewynn’s humble horn spoon save a life?

Find out in Bright Blade.
Ebook Free for a limited time (Expires 8.00 GMT 11th December 2020. Normal price £1.99.)

Please visit the other blogs taking part in this event:

Dec 3rd Sharon Bennett Connolly
https://historytheinterestingbits.com

Dec 4th Alex Marchant
https://alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com

Dec 5th Cathie Dunn
https://cathiedunn.blogspot.com/

Dec 6th Jennifer C Wilson
https://jennifercwilsonwriter.wordpress.com

Dec 8th Danielle Apple
www.danielleapple.com

Dec 9th Angela Rigley
Authory Antics | Angela Rigley (wordpress.com)

Dec 12th Janet Wertman
https://Janetwertman.com

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https://vanessacouchmanwriter.com/blog

Dec 14th Sue Barnard
https://broad-thoughts-from-a-home.blogspot.co.uk

Dec 15th Wendy J Dunn
www.wendyjdunn.com

Dec 16th Margaret Skea
Home – Margaret Skea, Author

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Dec 18th Tim Hodkinson
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Dec 20th Paula Lofting
www.paulaloftinghistoricalnovelist.wordpress.com

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Dec 22nd Samantha Wilcoxson
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Dec 23rd Jen Black
JEN BLACK (jenblackauthor.blogspot.com)

Dec 24th Lynn Bryant
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NaNoWriMo plus

It is the middle of November and many writers are are the middle of National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo, as it is better known. A challenge to write 50,000 words in the thirty days of November. There is no prize in winning the challenge, only the satisfaction of achieving something, and occasionally beating your friend’s wordcount.

I have taken part, and won, twice – in 2018 and 2019. This year I am giving it a miss. I have something else to do. Because what is the point in writing all those words and not doing anything with them? I have spent most of 2020 finishing and publishing Bright Helm. What next?

Timelinewise (is that a word?) comes my detective story – last year’s NaNoWriMo which I wrote about here which I had not looked at for nearly a year. Although that is not quite true – I took the first chapter and used it as the ending of bright Helm. That must mean I intend to use it. It was time I read it and found out.

I printed out the manuscript and read it. I was pleasantly surprised – it (mostly) made sense. However, although I had carried on after NaNoWriMo I still only had just under 70k words – not enough for a novel. Never mind, there were bits missing. At one point I came across the sentence “Insert visit to XXX here” So I wrote that chapter, or was it two? I discovered a point that mentioned a character having done something – another chapter added describing those events.

Then I added a final chapter because the ending was a bit abrupt – a problem with NaNoWriMo, as you are so glad to get to the end, you just stop.

Then there was giving people names – mostly minor characters that were called NAME because I didn’t want to break the flow. A major character was renamed as well, because what I originally called him was rather unwieldy. And of course there was all the corrections in spelling and grammar and other silly mistakes.

Now I have a novel of 75k words – I was aiming for around 80k. Is it enough? Should I add more? How? After cutting so much from Bright Helm, I am more used to reducing words than increasing them!

As for the plot, I’m happy with that, but is the “Detection” bit enough? Too simple, or is that just because I know who “did it”. I’m sure Beta readers will put me right – any volunteers?

The main problem is not really the book, but how to publish it – not the technical side – stick it on Amazon and hope for the best. But how to market it. If I call it Byrhtnoth Chronicles: Book 5, Bright Wolf readers will be disappointed. Byrhtnoth appears but only as a minor character. There is none of the running around and fighting that people are used to, although some blood is spilt.

Is it a completely new series? The Wulfstan Mysteries, perhaps. Should I keep the Bright title theme/

What about the cover? I’m thinking something different, but similar. Any suggestions would be welcomed.

It’s not all confusion though. I mentioned the extra chapters – that “Insert visit” scene. Sometimes characters get away from their author and say things that she doesn’t intend. This happened here. The idea was taken up in the (new) final chapter and suddenly I had a flash of inspiration.

I had an idea for the next Byrhtnoth book!

I won’t say anything yet, it will involve a lot of research, but at least I have an idea. In fact I have too many ideas: a prequel about Byrhtnoth’s father, a piece of Historical Romance, even something different about the Staffordshire Hoard.

And then there is the 50,000 words I wrote for my first NaNoWriMo. I haven’t looked at that yet – a new genre, still historical, but a different period.

I must get myself under control. One thing at a time.

Halloween Monologue

Earlier this year an updated series of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads was shown on television. It included new and updated versions of his famous monologues which can still be seen here. It inspired a discussion in the Rugby Cafe Writers about monologues and we were encouraged to write our own.

My effort produced a few shudders and I decided it would be suitable for Halloween. I hope you enjoy it!

Hello? Is there anybody there?
There must be someone, out there in the darkness.
Where am I? If I am imprisoned, there must be a jailor. I hear nothing. Why do you not speak?
At least tell me why I’m here. I don’t remember.
I don’t remember anything.

I’m sorry about all the noise earlier, I must have panicked.
I’ve never liked the dark, but I’m all right now. I know what has happened.
There is a little light, not much, and voices, far away and muffled. I smell the sea and hear the gentle sound of waves against a wooden hull.
Still, there is no reply when I shout, but I know why.
This is a dream, and I am on the cusp between sleep and waking.
There is nothing to worry about, and when I wake all will be well and my voyage will continue.

Light! Bright light!
Colours. Blue sky, green grass.
Men shouting. Polished weapons reflecting sharp sunlight.
Everywhere movement, make it stop.
Everything spinning, I’m going to be sick.

That’s better, it’s quieter now.
I see a hall, servants preparing for a feast. Somewhere meat is roasting and the smell of freshly baked bread fills the air.
I am sitting in a chair, at least I think I am. I cannot move, only stare straight ahead. My neck aches, annoying but an improvement on feeling nothing.
I must be badly injured. How? And why am I here?
A woman approaches. I don’t recognise her.
Hello.
She doesn’t reply, only studies me carefully. She frowns. A slave brings a bowl of water. Of course, one must wash before the meal.
The woman carefully washes my face. I enjoy the trickle of scented water down my cheeks and the touch of smooth linen as she dries them.
She combs my hair. It is not my comb. Where is my comb? I don’t remember.
She is good at this; it hardly hurts at all.
It is soothing, the gentle passing of the comb as the tangles are undone, as she strokes my wayward locks back into place.

Where has she gone?
I must have slept.
The hall is brighter, the hearth flares high and torches glint off shields that hang from the walls; the devises unfamiliar, except…
Men sit at tables, meat is eaten, ale is drunk, I catch the bitter aroma of it.
A man appears.
He looks me in the eye.
At last. Someone recognises me. He addresses me by name and welcomes me to his feast.
He raises the mead horn to me, and laughs.
I cannot reply.
He disappears, out of my view.
I recognise him. Where did we meet?
Then understanding comes. This is no dream.
I saw his face, teeth clenched beneath a helm.
Saw the axe swing towards my neck and felt the pain as flesh tore and bones shattered.

Is there anybody there?
There must be someone, out there in the darkness.
This is wrong. It should not happen.
If you can hear me,
Please,
Help me.

It has an appropriate title, which I omitted to give at the start.

If you didn’t guess, it is Talking Head.

Does Size Matter? How Tall was Byrhtnoth?

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!

Anyone got a crowbar?

The Battle of Maldon – where was it?

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.

This later found its way into the collection of the Combined Military Services Museum in Maldon and has been identified as Viking and dating to the late tenth century.

Viking Sword found near Herbridge, Essex.
Picture by permission of Stephen P. Nunn on behalf Maldon CMSM

As far as I’m concerned, the presence of a viking sword of the correct era is surely a clue that something happened in this area at the time, and that event must have been the Battle of Maldon.

Why are the National Trust and English Heritage so unwilling to investigate this alternate theory? Is it because it is easier to put up a sign and say “Job Done”?

All I can say is  the next time that I visit the statue of Byrhtnoth in Maldon, I will look up at him, gazing resolutely downriver towards Northey Island and whisper “They’re behind you!”

 

Thanks to Stephen P Nunn  expert on all things Maldonian for the info included in this post and permission to use of the picture of the sword.

For more information about this theory see this difficult to find page of the official Battle of Maldon website.
And for pictures and maps see this pdf from the Battlefields Trust.

Inspiration – Where does it come from?

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.

The start of the climb. The entrance path winds around the edge of the rock.
Looking back towards the car park, beside the River Add. Only one other car besides ours.
Narrow entrance to the next level. Very uneven underfoot!
Main occupation level, with well (in foreground) and lookout point.
Further up and the stone where Kings of Scotland placed their feet.
Time for a Queen of Scots? Well, everyone has to do it!
View down from the summit. The only other visitors are passing through the narrow gateway.
View looking in the other direction, towards the sea and Crinan (canal on the left)
Crinan in the sun. Cream teas at the shop on the left.
View of Dunadd from the Crinan Canal. River Add in the foreground, Hills and Kilmartin Glen behind.

The Last Decade – Becoming a Writer

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.

Award for best article in Kith & Kin, magazine of RFHG, 2017

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.

My First Book, and later publications

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.

Page of PGH Brochure for Spring 2014.

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.

Statue of Byrhtnoth at Maldon.

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.

Meeting in the Snow – A Story for Christmas

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.”

“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 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:

6th Dec Jen Black https://jenblackauthor.blogspot.com/
 8th Dec Derek Birks https://dodgingarrows.wordpress.com/
9th Dec Jen Wilson Jennifercwilsonwriter.wordpress.com
11th Dec Janet Wertman https://janetwertman.com/
12 Dec  Margaret Skea https://margaretskea.com/blog/
13th Dec Sue Barnard http://broad-thoughts-from-a-home.blogspot.com/
15th Dec Lynn Bryant http://www.lynnbryant.co.uk/blog/
16th Dec Samantha Wilcoxson https://samanthawilcoxson.blogspot.com/
17th Dec Nicky Moxey https://nickymoxey.com/2019/12/17/christmas-gifting-in-1181
18th Dec Nancy Jardine https://nancyjardine.blogspot.com
19th Dec Wendy J Dunn http://www.wendyjdunn.com/christmas-at-the-tudor-court-a…/
20th Dec Judith Arnopp  https://juditharnoppnovelist.blogspot.com/atudorchristmas
21st Dec Tim Hodkinson http://timhodkinson.blogspot.com/
22nd  Vanessa Couchman https://vanessacouchmanwriter.com/blog/
23rd Christine Hancock https://byrhtnoth.com/
24th Paula Lofting https://paulaloftinghistoricalnovel.worpress.com
25th Alex Marchant https://alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com  

Or read all the posts at Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop Page

Writing a Historical Detective Novel – NaNoWriMo update

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.

“What are these words supposed to be?”

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.

Just to prove I did it!

NaNoWriMo 2019 – Halfway There

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.