Interview My Character – Wulfhere, Thegn of Horstede

Today I have a visitor on my blog. As part of the Historical Writer’s Forum Blog Hop, I am interviewing a character from the Sons of the Wolf by Paula Lofting, a series of historical novels set in the 11th century in the years leading up to the Battle of Hastings. 

Wulfhere is a rather large Anglo Saxon warrior, so I have made sure Byrhtnoth is out of the way, in case he gets jealous and starts a fight.

Welcome Wulfhere, may I offer you some mead, or would you prefer ale?

Mead if I may, the strongest you have.

I make it myself and have had no complaints. Waes Hael!
Now, please introduce yourself – who you are, what you do?

Well, Christine, I am a king’s thegn, which means I am beholden to him for my 5 hides of land. The current king is Edward, son of the old king Æthelred, whom I believe became known as the Badly Counselled. As a king’s thegn, I am expected to carry out certain duties such as attending court on a rota system where I work under the chief staller, Esegar, who happens to be a relation of my wife, Ealdgytha’s. I must also owe military service to my king, therefore I am oathsworn to Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex and whose jurisdiction I live within.

Forgive me for asking, but are you a real historical person or did your author create you?

I am based on a true figure in history which my scop found in the Domesday Book. He owned ‘my’ land so to speak, which is Horstede, now called ‘Little Horsted’ so I am told. I’m not sure, but I like to think that he would have been happy with my portrayal of him, even if I am somewhat flawed. I never wanted to be a hero, because I know this image is far too difficult for a man like me to live up to, but people often put the label on me. I would say that I have done heroic things, but I am not a hero by any stretch. I try to be loyal to my king and my Lord Harold whom I have known since I was boy. My father served his father, so there is a strong family tie there. Harold and used to share a lot of time together as we grew up, but lately, since he has become more powerful, not so much. There are times when I feel I no longer know him, and because of him, I have been forced to compromise my loyalty to him and my honour. It has been very difficult at times to feel the love I once had for him as much as I used to because of what I have lost.

Can you tell me in a few brief sentences: what is the novel you feature in about?

I shall try to be brief! The novels I feature in are from a series: Sons of the Wolf, 2 books of which are published, and one is a WIP.
They are currently set in the years leading up to the Battle of Hastings which is, I understand, the most pivotal battle in our English history. The series aims to be a 6 book series and will cover the rebellions post Hastings. The central theme is based around myself and my family. We are a normal middle-class family – we have our ups and downs, my 3 sons can be unruly at times and my 2 eldest daughters a little wild, running in the forest, barefoot like urchins. But I love my wife and my children, though I am not as good a father and husband as I should be. The ongoing theme of the story is a bloodfeud between myself and my neighbour, Helghi, who covets what I own and he will go to any lengths to get it.

It sounds like an interesting story, how did your author meet up with you?

She tells me she was looking for a central character to play alongside the historical characters of the period in which she is writing which starts in the mid-1050s. I have to say that I didn’t like her at first, because she made me do things that I didn’t want to, but I found that if I played along, I get to do things that I might normally not have, had I been the perfect hero.

Tell me about one or two of the other characters who feature with you – husband, wife, family? Who are some of the nice characters and who is the nastiest one?

I have a beautiful wife, Ealdgytha and she has given me seven children, three boys and four girls, one of who dies in infancy which was heart-breaking. It was terrible to see my wife suffer her grief after losing the child. Drusilda was such a lovely little thing and had not even seen two summers. I love my children very much, all of them, but they do cause a lot of heartache, especially when they die! My favourite child was my eldest daughter, Freyda, but she broke my heart when she fell in with the son of my arch enemy, Helghi, who owns the land nearby. The families of Helghi and I have had a long running feud for many years, but it had lain dormant for some time, and when Freyda begins secretly trysting with Helghi’s son, Edgar, in the forest, the affair rekindles the bloodfeud that brings all sorts of havoc to Sussex.

Helghi is one of the nastiest creatures I have ever known and sees his own failure to do well in the world as being my fault. He is envious of what and who I am, and what I have, though what I have is not that much in the grand scale of things. But he wants it, my land, my daughters, my horses, my home and my wealth, such that it is. And he will do anything to get them, even murder.

He sounds a real villain. On to something more pleasant. What is your favourite scene in the book?

Hmmm… [ rubs chin thoughtfully] So there are many favourites in both books, but I’ll pick one from each that contain me in them, of course. From Sons of the Wolf: I love the scenes where I am with Ealdgytha, my wife. There is so much burning passion, bitterness, and emotion. I get to let a lot of that out. Ealdgytha and I spend most of the books tearing chunks out of each other, but the one I favour the most is the one where I am going to betray her, and she knows and tries to stand in my way, but in the end, she realises that there is no point, because when I get an idea to do something in my head, there’s no way I can stop it. It’s like my soul is taken over and I cannot fight it. But in the end, it not only causes those I love much pain, it causes me pain too.

I think my favourite scene in The Wolf Banner has to be the one where I fight the Cheampa feoht, the fight of champions. I shall not give too much away, but here I get to show my strength and fighting skills and I get to play the hero. It’s an awesome feeling to be able to demonstrate how much I love the fight. As much as I hate war and battles, my inner warrior revels in it. Its something I was born to; fighting and killing is in my blood. It’s exhilarating.

Your author has provided us with an extract of your fight later in this post. So, what is your least favourite scene?

Probably one of the worst scenes I’ve had to experience so far is the one where I lose my son. It’s absolutely heart-breaking, and I don’t think I ever get over it. I still haven’t. I cannot explain the pain of losing a loved one in such a way that I lose him, watching them die in your arms and know that there is nothing you can do. The pain lingers long after they are gone, too, knowing I should have been there to protect him, and wasn’t.

What are you most proud of about your author?

I think the thing that makes me proud of her is the fact that she has worked so hard to produce a great story, hours of research  (she does re-enactment you know, so she can get a feel for the period and time in which I live) and editing the story. The Wolf Banner had to be edited several times before she was pleased with it. Its also had 4 editors work on it! She wants her readers to feel that they have received value for their money. Her books have won a few awards, including the prestigious IndieBRAG medallion.

Has your author written other books about you? If not, about other characters? How do you feel about your author going off with someone else!

Sons of the Wolf, is a planned series – well, planned in the sense she knows where she is going with the storyline, however she is more of a panster than a planner. So far I am featuring as one of the central characters in the books, and although the stories are based around me, there are other threads that have their own lead characters, namely Burghred, son of Alfgar, and my son Tovi, who has just got a job with Harold Godwinson as a trainee huscarle. I do get a bit jealous when she goes off with Lord Harold at times, after all, he is the Golden Balls of our time! But I understand that she wants to create an interesting tale that keeps the readers wanting to read on because with more than one lead character, they won’t get bored! She is currently writing the third book in the series which she hopes will be out later this year or early next year: Wolf’s Bane. There is always a wolf theme going on in the books which is reflected in the title.

Finally, as a character, if you could travel to a time and place different to your own fictional setting,  where and when would you go?

Gosh, that’s difficult because I only know what’s passed, I don’t know what our future is, though my author has told me that there will be a great civil war called War of the Roses which sounds very intriguing, and interesting! I’m not sure I would want to go through all those bloody battles though, I have been advised by my author who is also a nurse of mind health, that I have something called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – or Combat Stress, which is why I have nightmares and have been drinking a lot of strong liquor these days. So I am thinking that I would like to go to a time and a place where there was little conflict for me to be involved in, if there would be such a thing, so I could live peaceably with my children and a good woman to share my bed. Do you know of such a place?

I’m not sure whether I do. My own time is probably more peaceful than most, but there is still fighting in some lands, and warriors will always be drawn to it. And authors will be attracted to the stories the warriors, or their families, have to tell.
Thank you for telling me something about you life, it has been interesting to meet you. You can collect your weapons at the door. And if you meet a tall young man outside, perhaps you can warn him about the pitfalls of a warrior’s life. Not that he will listen – you know what young men are like!

Excerpt from The Wolf Banner: The Cheampa Feoht

Wulfhere was considered tall amongst his companions, but this Harald was taller – and broader and armed with a dangerous looking Dane-axe.  He swung the weapon with effortless agility, as though it were a child’s plaything. The blade edge had a span of almost a foot long and Wulfhere shuddered, remembering the battle of Hereford, where he’d witnessed blades smaller than this cutting into horses’ necks with frightening ease.

The crowds on both sides shouted for their warrior. Amidst the cacophony of jeering and cheering, a soft wind blew an aroma of sun on damp grass and meadowsweet. It felt ironic; here he was, waiting for death, whilst nature infused the air with the sweetest odours of life. It is a pleasant day to die, Wulfhere thought ironically.

Leofwin’s priest had blessed him, and it was little comfort to know that his sins were absolved. But his sons would be watching, and he wanted them to know that if he lost today, it would be gloriously. He mouthed the words of the Paternoster, and readied himself, his spear high, shield gripped across his torso.

The big blade arced in the air. Harald stormed toward him. Wulfhere’s stomach muscles tensed, bile rising in his throat. The great broad-axe danced before him in a circular movement, revealing the vulnerable, exposed parts of Harald’s body.

Wulfhere slowed his breathing as Harald was nearly upon him. He gained control of his shaking spear hand, and fixed his glare on the snarling Norþmann. Shiny metal glinting in the sun descended, aimed at the exposed area of Wulfhere’s neck. He leapt back, clear of the blow. Harald was propelled forward by the impetus of the action, stumbling on ungainly legs. Wulfhere thrust the spear low into his enemy’s inner thigh with a satisfying sensation of splitting skin and tissue.

Harald gave a pathetic half-cry, as though merely stung by a wasp. Wulfhere tugged his spear free, blood painting the shaft a bright shade of crimson. He backed away out of Harald’s reach as the big man drew himself up and raised the axe, shaking his head, scowling. He screamed an obscenity in Norse, and Wulfhere shrugged an apology. “Oh, have I hurt you? I am sorry.”

Their supporters shouted encouragement. Harald repeated his display, swinging the axe around his head this time, showing his dexterity. Wulfhere continued to glare at him, unblinking. The eyes of his enemy reflected a thousand Dunsinanes and Herefords. Wulfhere’s fear settled, his mind a whirlpool of fury. He wasn’t going to die today, God help him – he wasn’t! He had not survived the horrors of those battles to die here at the hands of this ill-begotten lump of garbage. His children would not be orphaned. His wife would not go without a husband. Not today.

The axe whirred above and below Harald’s head as it gathered momentum. Wulfhere averted his eyes from the blade to avoid being blinded by its blur. He fixated on the deadly movement of his opponent’s arms, and counted: one, when the arms went up; two, they came down. He knew he would have to be quick. He tried to move around Harald – crab-like – to the right and to the left. It was futile, he would not get his spear into the man’s back. Whichever way he went, Harald moved with him. It was no use. Wulfhere had no choice but to let him come to him.

 At last, Harald swung his axe at Wulfhere’s head. Wulfhere flung up his shield. It took the brunt of the hit, jarring his arm, the blade through the other side. He was down, not hit, but his shield was wrecked. The crowd chanted, urging him to rise.

 Someone was calling out, “For Hereford! For Hereford!” and he was immediately transported to another time, riding amongst the carnage of that battle. Great blood-stained broad-axes, blades flashing, were cutting into the beautiful necks of the war horses. Blood rained down on his face, splattering into his mouth and eyes, screams torturing the air. The maiming of horses had made him angry then, and it was making him angry now! Men dying was one thing, but Christ on the cross – not the horses!

Sons of the Wolf Book 1
Sons of the Wolf Book 2: The Wolf Banner

Giveaway: The author has kindly offered an ebook copy of an ebook of Sons of the Wolf to two winners. To enter, simply leave a comment below this post or on the post about this interview on the Facebook page. The draw will be made on 4th July. Good luck!

Biography:
Paula Lofting began writing her Sons of the Wolf series whilst training to be a nurse in 2005 -8. Inspired by a re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings, Paula wanted to explore what really happened to bring the Normans over the sea to conquer the Anglo-Saxons and so she researched, joining a re-enactment society to enhance the research.
She lives in West Sussex, not far from where her books are set, and works as a psychiatric nurse during the day and writing in her spare time. Having always been an avid reader of history and historical fiction, she has three grown up children and a granddaughter.


Links:
Website –    1066:The Road to Hastings and Other Stories
Email –        contact@paulalofting.com
Facebook –  Paula Lofting Facebook Page
Blogger –    paulaperuses.blogspot.com
Twitter –      http://twitter.com/paulalofting

If you enjoyed this post, why not visit some of the other posts on the Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop? The next one is Paula herself interviewing Prince of Agrius, Casmir, from Stephanie Churchill’s Crowns of Destiny trilogy

Visiting the past – Ripon

As a writer of books set in the tenth century, it is not often that I get the chance to visit places that survive from that period. Even the landscape can change: stretches of coast have disappeared, rivers have changed their course and towns have appeared where once the land was empty, or disappeared only to be rediscovered by archaeologists. Man has had such an influence on the land, how do we even know that an apparently immovable mountain looks the same as it did a thousand years ago? Perhaps it was once covered in forest or mining has changed the outline.

Recently I visited a place that remains comparatively unchanged. Beneath the floor of Ripon Cathedral, in North Yorkshire, is a crypt. It was built in 672AD, so it was already old by the tenth century. It was built by St Wilfrid and survived several rebuildings of the church and then cathedral above.

St Wilfrid was born in Northumbria around 633AD probably from an aristocratic family. When he was about fourteen he left home, travelling to the court of King Oswiu. He was sent to study at the recently founded monastery at Lindisfarne. After a few years he moved to Canterbury. He then travelled to Rome with Bishop Biscop and spent time in Lyons. He returned to Northumbria in 658AD and was given the monastery recently founded at Ripon by Alhfrith, sub king and son of Oswiu. The monks had come from Melrose Abbey and followed the Irish monastic customs. After his travels Wilfrid favoured the Roman version of Christianity and introduced the Rule of Saint Benedict to Ripon. He expelled several “Celtic” monks, including St Cuthbert.

Wilfrid took part in the Synod of Whitby in 664AD, when the Roman method of calculating the date of Easter was adopted, largely due to Wilfrid’s speech. He was nominated as Bishop, but considered the Anglo-Saxon bishops of Northumbria unqualified to censecrate him. He travelled to Compiègne, to be consecrated by the Bishop of Paris. After various delays Wilfrid became Bishop of York in 669AD. He travelled widely, to Rome again and throughout England, converting the South Saxons and building churches throughout the country. After he died in 710AD he was buried in the church he had built in Ripon. More about this energetic saint here.

The church at Ripon, and Hexham which he also built, were aisled basilicas, similar to those common on the continent. They were also the first buildings in England since the Romans to be built of stone. In fact most of the stone was taken from Hadrian’s wall (for Hexham) and probably the Roman town at Alborough (which we also visited) for Ripon. The only part of the original church surviving today is the crypt. It was built by Wilfrid to resemble the crypts he had seen in Rome or perhaps as a copy of the tomb in which Christ was buried.

Ripon Cathedral, west front


The crypt survived because it is completely separate from the building above, attached only at the entrance and exit. Wilfrid’s church stood nearly three hundred years until it was burnt to the ground in 948AD during a dispute between King Eadred and the Archbishop of York. A later Minster was destroyed in 1069 in the Harrowing of the North by William I and the present church was built by Archbishop Roger de Pont l’Eveque in 1180.
In 1836 the Minster became a Cathedral and in 1861 there was major restoration by George Gilbert Scott.

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

My interest in the crypt was drawn by that significant date of 948AD. This is the year I have reached in my series of books about Byrhtnoth, and the event was just too good to ignore. I had already written the scenes, so I was interested to see if my imagination matched the facts. The place seemed smaller than I expected, but everything else fitted. Not too much editing required! Here is a brief extract from my WIP. Byrhtnoth has just fallen down the steps and makes his way along the entrance corridor, searching for illumination.

Steps leading down to the anglo-saxon crypt

The height was adequate for a normal man, but not me. The roof was flat; large slabs laid across it. I felt the joints beneath my fingers as I shuffled forward. The passage was narrow, the rock smooth with the passage of many bodies. The walls pressed in, like the sides of a grave. I imagined myself trapped forever in the cold and dark. My questing hands encountered a blank wall ahead, and I started to panic.
“The corridor bends to the right.” The monk’s calm voice came from behind. It sounded far away. I stretched out an arm into empty space.
“I’m there.” I tried to hide the tremor in my voice.
“Carry on. Watch out for a step, just before the end of the corridor. There should be a lamp there and a jug of oil.”
Although I moved slowly, I tripped on the step and fell against the rough wall. I waited for my heart to slow before finding the lamp in a niche together with a bowl of sweet-smelling oil. I fumbled in my pouch for my flint. I blinked as the spark ignited, then lit the wick of the waiting lamp. Light flooded the corridor.

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



I’m not going to tell you why he is there, or what happens. You will have to wait for the book! The corridor leads to the main room, through an arch into another, then up another set of stairs to the exit.
Luckily there weren’t too many people around, so I had plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere.
I even took my husband through the crypt, explaining what (I imagined) took place. He is probably glad I don’t get the chance to do that very often!

The visit to Ripon was an short break on our way back from a holiday in Scotland. I’ll write more about that another time and how it has inspired some of the action in the next book (number four) of the Byrhtnoth Chronicles.

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

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms – The Exhibition.

Apologies for the delay of this post. It was left unfinished when the publication of Bright Axe intervened.

Anyone who has the slightest interest in Anglo-Saxon history will have heard about the exhibition that has been running at the British Library, and those within reach of London will have been to see it. If you didn’t make it, you missed a treat; an event which, some say, will never occur again.

Why is it so important? Because it brought together what is probably every important Anglo-Saxon document, to tell the story of this important period, commonly referred to as the Dark Ages. One example is the Codex Amiatinus: one of three bibles made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early years of the eighth century, it was taken to Rome in 716 – and has been there ever since. It had come home after 1300 years, and will probably never come again.

The exhibition starts at the beginning, with the arrival of the people who became the Anglo-Saxons. This is a time of few written records, we have only objects found in graves. I was intrigued by the mysterious figure: Spong Man, a 5th century urn lid, from a time when cremation was the favoured method of burial. It is reminiscent of the Egyptian ivory statuette of Khufu – perhaps it was just the strange hat.
(I should point out here that photography was forbidden in the British Library. I have added links to images on their website)

Other objects in this section were gold pendants from Binham and a brooch from Hartford Farm near Norwich. Then the St Augustine Gospels, sent by Pope Gregory himself, at the end of the sixth century, and the law-code of King Aethelberht of Kent. The latter a later copy, but showing the first example of English law.

Sutton Hoo belt buckle Image: Jononmac46 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31937690

The second section, Kingdoms and Conversion, or as I now call it Bling and Bibles, covered the creation of the familiar Kingdoms and the connections that developed with the outside world. The bling included a handful of well known treasures from Sutton Hoo (the sword belt and gold belt buckle) and the Staffordshire Hoard. In fact the slow moving queue to reach some of the exhibits reminded me of the line around Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, to see the Staffordshire Hoard for the first time, with the mud still on it. My favourite piece of jewelry, the Winfarthing Pendant was here and to illustrate the the richness of this exhibition, there is not even a picture of this object on the BL website. See here instead.

Initial from the Book of Darrow – Image Public Domain

If anything, the bibles part was even more beautiful. I could have spent hours studying the patterns of the Book of Darrow. Perhaps not actually Anglo-Saxon, it might have come from Ireland or Iona, but it bears a resemblance to the jewelry. There were other gospels, from Durham and the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. I marvelled at other, less spectacular documents: Wealdhere’s Letter, the oldest surviving letter written on parchment from the Christian West, the earliest copy of the Rule of St Benedict, and the small leather covered book that is the St Cuthbert Gospel. It is the earliest European book with an original, intact binding and was found beside St Cuthbert, when his coffin was opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104. I hung over it, probably the closest I will ever come to a saint.

Mercia and its Neighbours, the next section, covered the 8th century, Aethelbald and Offa (no Penda?). More gospels and charters, and coins: one a (bad) copy of an Arabic dinar stamped with Offa’s name, which shows the importance of these coins in international trade. The other is a silver penny of Offa’s wife, Cynethryth, the only Anglo-Saxon queen to be so honoured. The highlight was The Lichfield Angel, a limestone fragment of a carving found in excavations at Lichfield Cathedral.

In The Rise of the West Saxons, more charters mark the change in the balance of power The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle documents the reigns of Aethelberht and Aethelred and the accession of Alfred. One document (Manuscript A) was originally written during King Alfred’s reign. There were (later) copies of Asser’s Life of King Alfred and the Treaty between King Alfred and King Guthrum that set up the Danelaw and the exact boundaries between England and the Danes. Another document, King Alfred’s translation of the Pastoral Care, is attributed to the king himself.
I imagined it as one of those documents that Alfred was perusing when interrupted by Uhtred in The Last Kingdom. The highlight of this section was the Alfred Jewel itself. So many times I had seen it, in pictures or on TV programs, but this was the first time, in the flesh. Beautifully lit in its own separate case, I had time to really look at it. It looked different, I don’t know how, but it was worth the trip just to see this.

Image Public Domain

With The Emergence of England, I was entering “my” period and the excitement grew. I saw the famous picture of King Aethelstan presenting the Life of St Cuthbert, in the very book. There was a charter of the same king, in which it was possible to pick out the words “King of the English” and “King of Britain”

It was at this point that I originally abandoned this blog post. It was also around this point that the memories of my visit become a little blurred. I started to drift from one exhibit to another without really seeing them.
I turned away from yet another document to come face to face with Matthew Harffy, fellow Anglo-Saxon author of the Bernicia Chronicles. I had seen on Twitter that he was visiting the same day, but didn’t expect to meet him as his time slot was an hour after mine. That was when I realised how long I had been in there. We had a quick chat and then he headed for the exit. I decided to do the same.

But first there was one more manuscript I wanted to see. I had already accepted that I would find nothing to do with Byrhtnoth. After all, the original copy of the Battle of Maldon was destroyed in a fire many years ago. He might have been included in a list of names at the bottom of some document, but was I prepared to search every single one, just in case?
No, the document I was looking for concerned St Dunstan: an image from the Glastonbury Classbook. This was written by St Dunstan himself when he was at Glastonbury and the small figure of a monk kneeling at the feet of Christ is supposed to be a self portrait of the saint himself.

St Dunstan praying before Christ. Translated, the text reads Remember, I beg you, merciful Christ, to protect Dunstan, and do not permit the storms of the underworld to swallow me up. Image Public Domain

In the end I found the image. Dunstan was alive at the same time as Byrhtnoth. They would have probably have met, spoken together on many occasions. It is the nearest I will ever get to my character. Even this had added interest as displayed next to it was a very similar illustration from another book, demonstrating how books, or monks, must have travelled great distances to study, and copy, other works.

That was it. The exhibition seemed to break up a bit with no overall plan – or perhaps it was just me. I glanced at the occasional document and passed through a section on the Doomsday Book without stopping. Normans? Not interested.

I emerged into the bright light of the British Library, dazed and exhausted. I purchased a copy of the accompanying book, collected my coat and returned to Euston Station and the train home.

It was an experience that I will remember for a long time, and it also left me with an interesting thought.
At the start of the exhibition’s run, I saw a quote from someone who had been to see it. I can’t remember who it was or where I read it, but it was something along the lines of it being like visiting old friends. My reaction was that this must be some “expert” who had studied the period, had intimate knowledge of the documents.
But now I had a similar feeling. With the number of documents surviving from the so called Dark Ages so small, there were so many I had seen in books or online, even in television programmes, that they were, in effect, old friends.

It also made me realise that, as a non historian, I know more than I thought about the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.

The Wanderer

Like The Battle of Maldon, The Wanderer is one of those fragments of Anglo-Saxon poetry which has survived into the present day. It was preserved in the Exeter Book, a manuscript dating from the late 10th century, therefore written down in Byrhtnoth’s lifetime. It consists of only 115 lines of verse and the composer and compiler are anonymous.

The Wanderer

The poem is untitled, but tell the story of a man who has lost everything. He has no Lord to serve and receive gifts from. He had no hall in which to feast and no friends “to whom I dare clearly speak of my innermost thoughts.” He remembers his life of long ago and contrasts it with his life now: “the friendless man… sees before him fallow waves. Sea birds bathe, preening their feathers, Frost and snow fall, mixed with hail.”

He talks about how all life comes to this: “throughout this middle-earth walls stand blown by the wind, covered with frost, storm-swept the buildings.” Towards the end, he accepts that this is how things are and always will be. The wise man must keep his faith and seek “mercy, consolation from the father in the heavens, where, for us, all permanence rests.”

It is uncertain if this final section is a later addition, adding a religious meaning to the work. To me the poem tells much of the mindset of a person living at this time: of the importance of having a place in society and how lonely it can be without the support of others, friends, family and a lord. I hope I have brought some of these feelings into my stories about Byrhtnoth.

However, this was supposed to be an introduction to a handful of book reviews, not a literary interpretation

At the start of the year I announced that I would make a list of books I read. I have kept to that promise and found that by the end of March, I had read 19 books. Some were good, some were bad, but the strange thing was that three of them were part of a series entitled “The Wanderer” – that’s three different series of that name!

When you think about it, this is a good name for a series. Every book is supposed to be “a journey” either physically or psychologically. It can cover a wide range of subjects. Here are just three which can be loosely covered by the genre, Historical Fiction.

The first is “The Wanderer Chronicles” written by Theodore Brun. I read the first, A Mighty Dawn and quickly followed it by the second, A Sacred Storm. It is set in the 8th century in Denmark and Sweden. A young man, Hakan, leaves home after a traumatic discovery. He abandons everything, even his name, in a search for a new lord. Like the Wanderer of the poem, he encounters cold and snow eventually finding himself in the land of the Svears. The king’s daughter has been abducted and Hakan, now named Erlan (foreigner) must rescue her. In the second book, he has sworn to serve King Sviggar. He becomes entangled in dark plots and is forced to choose between love and duty. Erlan is a somewhat dour protagonist, unwilling to enjoy the success he achieves, but an interesting change from the usual hero who gets the girl. There is a touch of fantasy, but it doesn’t detract from the gritty reality of life at this time. The book ends with the promise of more adventures to come – I look forward to them.

The next “Wanderer” series also consists of two books, with another to come. A Torch in his Heart by Anna Belfrage is classified as Time Travel/ Romance, although the time travel is achieved by the living of many lives and it is set mostly in the present day. Helle arrives for a new job with gorgeous but sinister Sam Woolf. Later she meets and is attracted to Jason Morris. She gradually learns that she has met these men before and they have been fighting for her across time. The original encounter ended in tragedy, will it be different this time? There is violence and a lot of steamy sex. The second book, Smoke in her Eyes, came out shortly after I finished the first and the story continued. By the end Woolf is presumed dead. Will Helle and Jacob live happily ever after? There is another book to come!

I had great hopes for the third series, Witness to Murder: The Wanderer Part 1: England 979 by R Hyslop. It was the first in a nine part series set in “my” period and even mentioned Byrhtnoth a couple of times. I should have been warned by the amateurish cover and lack of reviews. The mention of
“extensive factual End-Notes” promised much, but links were scattered through the text every time a name or place was mentioned, or even some object or custom that anyone with any intelligence could have guessed – very distracting. The story was not too bad, but practically unreadable due to the florid descriptions with little connection to the plot and the lack of punctuation. I made it to the end, but will not be following the adventures of Ethelwulf, Thane of Arne any further.

Three series based on the name The Wanderer. I didn’t choose them because of the name, but I was lucky in my choices twice.

Announcement!


This Blog has been quiet for a while.
I started writing a post about my visit to the Anglo-Saxon exhibition at the British Library – it was great by the way – but then fate intervened.

My WIP, Bright Axe, was ready for publication. Why wait? I planned to Self Publish via KDP. I was feeling my way. I didn’t know how long it would take – if I could even do it myself. Everyone said it was easy!

As it turned out, most of it was. I used Kindle Create to produce the e-book, no problems. The paperback took more work, it took a lot of formatting to get the manuscript into something suitable to turn into a pdf. I downloaded the instructions from Amazon and, as long as you take things slowly, step by step, they were very useful.
I had problems with page numbering, but it worked in the end. I’m not sure if the margins are correct, but it looks OK. I wrestled with some pesky invisible blank pages and eventually got rid of them.

I had purchased my own ISBN numbers; I am now a publisher called Madder Press

I had a cover ready. That would do for the ebook, but I needed a back and a spine for the paperback. I returned to the designer, Cathy Helms and we put everything together. (There might be a later post on how to write a blurb – as any author will tell you, this is more difficult than writing an entire book!)

I set a day for publication. Not too soon but not too far ahead. I ticked the box to have the ebook available for pre-order and learned that you can’t do that for the paperback. I have ordered a proof copy and will publish “on the day”. I will probably have to make corrections, so the job is not quite finished.

But most of it is done.
The ebook is ready to order here. It is priced at £3.99.
The paperback will be £8.99.

I hope you enjoy it.

Looking Forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of the Year Review

A new year – time to look forward. But everyone is looking back. We cannot plan the way forward unless we know where we are coming from.

2018 has been a landmark year for me. There can’t be a much bigger event than publishing your first novel. That was back in January. It seems like a long time ago: the excitement of seeing copies of my book for the first time, practicing my signature for the first signing and that freezing day of the launch. I have learned a lot and done a lot more writing, and rewriting, and editing. I will publish my second book this year, perhaps my third as well. More about all that another time.

For this post I thought about writing about the books I have read in 2018 – put together a top five, or ten. But I couldn’t remember what I read last year. Was that book last year, or the one before? The ones I remember are the ones I have written about here – or planned to write about, but never got around to it.
So I have made a resolution – I will make a list of every book I read in 2019, together with notes and a rating. I hope it will result in more reviews here and elsewhere.

So no top ten books this year. What else can I review? What about this blog? Behind these pages, WordPress provides me with a whole load of statistics. What was my most successful post? Since I am planning on a little light housekeeping, it seems like a good idea to find out what works and what doesn’t.

This blog started on the 9th August 2015, just before the anniversary of the death of Byrhtnoth. This enabled me to introduce my character and write about the Battle of Maldon. I have written 119 posts since then, an average of just under three a month – better than I expected! I have had 5,430 views and my most successful post was on the 25th September a review of King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett. It got retweeted by the Dorothy Dunnett Society (@DunnettCentral) which produced 190 views.

But this is a review of 2018. What have been the most popular posts this year?

Coming top, with 98 views is “How do you pronounce that?” Published on 22nd Jan 2018, it is about my problems with finding the correct pronunciation of Byrhtnoth. Not a particularly enthralling subject for the general public. Why has it had so many hits? Is it the title?

Number two is a report on the Historical Novel Society Conference 2018 , with 58 views. I am sure that a mention by the HNS improved the circulation of that post.

Third comes a post from November 2015: The Last Kingdom – Book v Television has had 50 views this year. It is also the second all time favourite. I think it gets noticed whenever the TV program is shown.

Fourth place this year (34 views) goes to “Do you need a Structural Edit?” Something that is of interest to all writers. Giving my current editor a rave review helped to publicise that one.

In joint fifth place, on 27 views each is a post “With Aethelflaed in Tamworth” a report of an event about The Lady of Mercia – talks and books for sale, which was promoted by the organisers (and participants, thank you). With the same number of views came one of a series of five posts about a holiday in Orkney and Shetland. Why was number three more popular than the others?

What have I learned from this exercise? It helps to write about someone or something with a high profile and tell them you have posted. The other is to ask a question. I will have to give this a lot of thought. Of course, I could always ask you, my readers.

What would you like me to write about in 2019?

Random Reading

Everyone having a relaxing Christmas? I am. There’s something about the Christmas season that encourages a relaxation of all the rules – perhaps it’s the exhaustion after all the rushing about. The shopping, cooking, the frantic rush for everything to be ready for the big day. It is when time seems to stop. What day is it? Friday or Saturday? It makes no difference. It is also when there are no rules – misrule – when you can do what you want without guilt.

At one time, this would have meant eating too much, gorging on chocolates, long meals with a different wine for each course, then sitting slumped and hungover in front of the television. I am older now, and wiser. I have been binge reading. I would always have spent a lot the time reading but this year I gave myself permission to forget everything else. Anyway there was a precarious pile of books I needed to tackle.

Normally, I would think carefully about what to read next but this Christmas I decided to start at the top of the pile and work down. The books in this particular pile (it is one of many) were ones I retrieved from my mother’s house. We cleared it when she moved to a care home. They are not family heirlooms – she was better at me of keeping things tidy. These were the books that she bought when her memory was starting to fail. The compulsion to buy books remained, but the ability to remember what she had bought and then read them had diminished.

I am not going to talk today about what is in the pile. The first one I read sent my thoughts travelling in another direction. Why do we pick the books we read? Or do they pick us? In the last few months I have read three books, all on a similar subject, the Second World War – a period that I would not normally read about and specifically about Resistance and how the past impacts on the present. I read the books for completely different reasons, not for the connection.

The first book, the one on the top of my pile was Citadel by Kate Mosse. The paperback edition was published in 2013. I, and presumably my mother, had read the first two books in the Languedoc series – Labyrinth and Sepulchre. They are all set in Southern France and involve a certain amount of time slippage – between the present day and the distant past. All involve mystical secrets that must be kept hidden.
In Citadel the present day is limited to an epilogue. The action takes place first in 1942 when Carcassonne is part of Vichy France, the unoccupied area under the control of Marshal Petain and then in 1944, after the Germans have invaded. It tells the story of Sandrine Vidal as she changes from innocent girl to experienced member of the resistance. There is a parallel storyline as Arinius, a monk, travels through the same area in the fourth century, carrying a valuable document for which he must find a hiding place.
As well as the tangled politics of wartime France, people are searching for the same document, some to destroy it, others to preserve it – even use it to fight against the destruction of the local population by the enemy as the Allies land in the South of France.

An exciting book with plenty of tension – setting bombs, evading the enemy and a love story as well. I learned a lot about conditions in France during the occupation, a time I knew little about and the connections with the past added an extra layer of interest.

And the connections with my writing? Earlier this year I was contacted by a friend of a friend, who wanted to find out about how to publish his writing. Originally from Rugby, he now lives in France and had met Kate Mosse – probably a better person to ask about getting published than me!

The second of the three books is The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths. This is the tenth, and most recent book in the Dr Ruth Galloway Mysteries. The way I found this series is an example of the serendipity of discovering books. One Thursday morning in writing class, we were talking about writing in the present tense. This is something that is frowned upon in certain writing circles. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a famous example – some people find it impossible to read. A member of the class mentioned books they had read that were in this format and easy to read. A detective series, set in Norfolk, in which the protagonist is an archaeologist. This piqued my interest and I made a note of the author – Elly Griffiths. That afternoon, after finishing my weekly shop at Sainsburys, I stopped at the charity second hand book stall. Staring up at me was a book by the same author – I think it was Dying Fall, the fifth in the series. I bought it and later started reading it. I discovered that after the first couple of pages, I was hooked, I no longer noticed the present tense.

The main character is a forensic archaeologist, Ruth. She specialises to bones, teaching at a local university. She is single, middle aged and slightly overweight – the ideal character to relate to. She lives on the edge of the saltmarsh in north Norfolk – a landscape that becomes a character in its own right. In the first of the series, The Crossing Places, the bones of a child are found on the marsh. Ruth is called in, but body turns out to be more modern. DCI Harry Nelson of Norfolk Police investigates. There are mysterious notes, archaeologists and police and a druid. By the end of the book, after an exciting night chase across the marsh, Ruth and Harry have solved the case and a partnership has begun.
I won’t go into details – I don’t want to give anything away but the series continues. New characters appear, others go (or die). There are old bones and new bodies. The culprit is revealed but at the same time you get to know these people: Ruth and Harry, their friends, relations and colleagues.

Most of the books are set in Norfolk but in the most recent, The Dark Angel, Ruth goes to Italy. In a hilltop village an ancient grave has been found, but the skeleton holds a modern mobile phone. Someone is killed and the answer lies in the past, in the conflict between resistance heroes and fascists during the second world war. I didn’t find it as good as the previous books. The situation was somewhat contrived and the characters were out of their comfort zone. Is the series reaching the end of its life?
The next book, The Stone Circle, is out in February 2019. It returns to the saltmarsh and the case where it all started.

If you want more coincidences, I was intending to buy The Dark Angel (it came out in Feb this year) when I went, on impulse, into a charity shop I had never been into before. There it was on the shelf.
Also, I have only just noticed there is a quote on the back by – Kate Mosse!

The third book I want to talk about today is Tell Me No Truths, by Gill Vickery. There was nothing forcing me to buy this book, unless you could say that sharing a stall at a Christmas Fair with the author counts. The fact that the Fair was in the same building as the writing class I attend and the author is my tutor might also have had something to do with it.

Like the Elly Griffiths book, this is also set in Italy, but whereas The Dark Angel is set in the Liri Valley, south of Rome, this book takes place in Florence and the surrounding villages. The book is Young Adult, and concerns a trip to Italy by three modern teenagers. Twins Amber and Jade are hoping to find out more about their much loved Italian grandfather, a hero of the Partisans in the second world war. They meet Nico who is only interested in discovering the identity of a reclusive writer of detective thrillers about the same period. They uncover secrets that have remained hidden for years.
I don’t know about young adults, but any adult would enjoy it. The story was gradually revealed and I loved the references to plants and flowers. It brought out the heat and beauty of Florence and its art, as well as some of less savory aspects of life during the war.

So, three books on a subject that I wouldn’t normally read but enjoyed. I wonder what else will force its way to my attention, or I will encounter in my mother’s TBR pile, before I plunge back into the tenth century?

On which note, you have only a few more days to read an extract of Bright Axe – to be published next year (or this year if you are late in reading this post!)

Three books about WW2 Resistance

Do you need a Structural Edit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I won NaNoWriMo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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