Where do you get your ideas?

With apologies to the Rugby Cafe Writers group, whose subject this was at their latest meeting, where do I get my ideas?

Writing historical fiction, I am constrained by what was actually happening in the period the book is set. The advantage of writing about the tenth century means that there is not a lot of known facts to contend with. In fact the plot outline is provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Book three is set in the year A.D.948 and according to this source, these are the events:

Research – £2.99 from Oxfam according to the label.

A. D. 948. King Eadred ravaged all Northumbria, because they had taken Eric for their king.
In that ravaging the minster at Ripon was burnt down, that St. Wilferth had built.
When the king was going homewards, the force in York overcame the king’s troops left behind in Castleford, and there was much slaughter.
Then the king was so enraged that he wanted to turn back and destroy that land, and everything in it.
The Northumbrians perceived this and gave up Eric; they made amends for that deed with king Eadred.

This is quite a lot to work with. Apparently two years later, in A.D. 950 absolutely nothing happened!

How was Byrhtnoth involved in these events? Apart from (probably) being alive at the time, nothing is known. So in the tradition of most historical novelists, Bernard Cornwall and Uhtred, etc, I must put him in the heart of the action. For some reason, that I don’t remember, I started writing the second part of the book first, then went back to the start. I am nearing the end (or what will be the middle). This week Byrhtnoth arrived in Ripon.

I have never been to Ripon, so I consulted my other sources (Wikipedia and Google Maps). One important fact I discovered was the Minster, which was burnt down, was in fact built of stone – one of the first Anglo-Saxon buildings built of that material. How do you burn down a stone building? I had a lot of thinking to do: What did it look like? How was it furnished? How would I burn it – if I wanted to do such a thing. I think I came up with a reasonable solution. You will have to wait until the book is published, to find out how.

All I have to do now is describe how Byrhtnoth survives Eric Bloodaxe and the great slaughter of Castleford and the first draft will be finished.

I am now past 88k words and last week I wrote 7,709 – I’m on schedule!

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Violence – How far do you go?

My books are set in the Anglo-Saxon period. The tenth century was perhaps not quite as “dark” as earlier times – after all Byrhtnoth lived through the reign of Edgar the Peaceful, King of England from 959 to 975. I like to think that he was responsible in some part for that.

In a book about this period readers expert a certain amount of violence, it might be why they read that type of book. Big men with swords, fighting other men with swords, or axes, probably in the shield wall of some major battle. It might even be a battle that is mentioned in history!

I’m afraid I don’t write about that. I knew when I started that I couldn’t write about that. With that confession my potential readership has dropped by 90% but better that, than people are disappointed.

There is violence in my books. Yes, my hero is a big man with a sword – or rather searching for a sword. Yes, he kills people, when necessary. But he has not experienced any big battle. I was expecting that in book two, then I looked in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – no battle in 947 – perhaps next year.

What I want to talk about is violence against women. There have been a lot of complaints about depictions of violence to women, especially on television. Every police drama, thriller etc involves the murder, or attack on, a young, attractive woman. It would seem that the safest person to be nowadays is an elderly person! I don’t tend to read that type of book, but I assume they are the same.

In historical fiction most women appear as the feisty heroine in a romance or as the “love interest” of the hero who fades away when not needed by the plot. And yes, before anyone complains – I know some books aren’t like that.

So, what have I been writing this week? Violence, against a woman.

It took me a long time to work out how to tackle it. Without going into the details. A woman is abducted by nasty men, abused, and then rescued. I wanted to concentrate on the effect this has on all involved, especially my protagonist. It is at the mid-point; it will influence the rest of the book.

I started with the abduction, from the point of view of the woman. I stopped at the point when she realises what is likely to happen to her. I moved to the rescue and describe her appearance to the rescuers. I then carry on, my protagonist doesn’t know if she will live or die (neither does the reader until close to the end – no plot spoilers here!)

I hope I have struck the right compromise. The worst part about it was that I had to live through what she suffered. I had to work out exactly what was done to her, when, and by whom. It was not very nice. I didn’t have much of an appetite for dinner that night.

It is done now. I can carry on with the book.

All this is my excuse for not reaching my target this week (only 5503 words), together with a trip to the hospital with my mother, writing a review, a birthday (not mine) and Valentines Day.

Funnily enough it was on Valentines Day that I wrote that violent scene – and no it has nothing whatsoever to do with the state of my marriage.

Plotter or Pantser, or something in between?

When anyone asks me how I write, I always say I’m a pantser. I have an aversion to charts and post it notes. I have learned to trust my characters to lead me where they want to go (or don’t want to go) so why fight them?

I think this is because I am still a novice writer, I had no prior experience. The first book evolved from a series of exercises. I pasted it together into some sort of a story and thought that was it. I knew nothing – it was just the start. As it tuned out, the original first ending  lay at the exact halfway point of the final version.

Many rewrites later I know my characters well, I understand what they want – better than they do themselves. Where would they go next? I had to do some sort of planning.

A series of scenes evolved in my head, a bit of research and they could be placed on a timeline. This scene has to take place in autumn, so it has to come after that one. Those characters will come back – whoops that one can’t, he died. What new characters do I need? What will their names be? Are they historical people? In which case I’m stuck with the name. But now I’ve got two people with the same name. Can I get away with spelling them differently? They will never meet, perhaps I can trust my readers to tell the difference?

When I started book 2 I had this series of scenes. I knew what happened at the start. I really needed a battle round about the centre – check the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to see who Byrhtnoth would be fighting. Oh dear, there was a truce, no battles that year. Well there must have been fighting somewhere, sometime, it just never got mentioned, I’d work it out when I got to it. Then the finale – big romantic scene? Sex? I don’t know, I haven’t got there yet – but I’m enjoying thinking about it!

Already I am getting ideas for book 3. Kill off a major character? Byrhtnoth is searching for a sword – will he find it? Can I hang it out into a fourth book?

These major scenes are easy, they are already written – in my head. The problem comes with the bits in between; the preparation, getting people into the right place, how long will it take? Hopefully not too much info dumping. I had this problem last week. I had to force myself to sit down and write. I knew it was rubbish but I did it anyway. I know I will cut it later.

I got through it and ready to write something more exciting. It was Friday, I was on track to reach my target. On Saturday, there was a party. A birthday party. The first birthday of my granddaughter. I enjoyed the party but afterwards I could not write what I wanted. Those burning ships would turn to candles on a cake. Byrhtnoth would be attacking the enemy with pink balloons instead of a bloodstained axe. Perhaps I could have invented a new genre – Dark Age meets Children’s Parties – a Bernard Cornwall/Pippa Middleton mash-up.

To cut a long story short. I failed. Last weeks’s word count was 4,825, bolstered by a silly but entertaining exercise of 525 words. Total 5,390.

This week is going well. I am on target, which explains why this post is three days late!

Perhaps I should plan more!