Mead and Poetry

I’m sure you have been wondering how my mead making is getting on, thanks for asking. Here is a quick update.

It had stopped bubbling and started to settle. It’s not completely clear, it may clear in time or it may not, but it was time to rack it. This means I had to siphon off the liquid from the dregs.

This is one of the best parts of the process. To get the wine flowing from one container to another, I had to suck it through. I’m sure there are other ways to do it, but this gives me my first opportunity to taste it. A good rule of thumb is: if I don’t immediately spit it out, its OK.

I can report that I didn’t spit it out! It tasted quite dry, which is a good sign. It means that the sugar from the pears and all that honey has turned to alcohol – the main purpose of the exercise. The taste will improve with age and it might need racking again.

Mead ready for racking

Mead ready for racking


It has turned a beautiful colour, a pinkish gold. It is similar to the yellow of the autumn leaves that are everywhere at the moment.

The Anglo-Saxons had a word for his special colour. It is fealo or fallow, the shade of autumn leaves, gold weapons and turbulent winter waves. It also gives its name to the Fallow Deer.

For more about the word see this wonderful post by Eleanor Parker ( @ClerkofOxford ). It includes translations of texts about Anglo-Saxon Autumns, including one of my favourite lines:

Beam sceal on eorðan
leafum liþan; leomu gnornian.

A tree on the earth must
lose its leaves; the branches mourn.

It says everything there is to say about Autumn.

While writing this, a memory nagged at me. I went and checked the original text of the Battle of Maldon (together with a translation – I wish I could read Old English, but I think I am too old to learn it now.)

Here is the original:

Feoll þa to foldan fealohilte swurd
ne mihte he gehealdan heardne mece,
wæpnes wealdan.

It comes in the final moments of Byrhtnoth’s life. He draws his sword, but is injured and:

Fell then to earth the fallow-hilted sword,
Nor could he hold the hard brand
Or wield his weapon.

It is the same word, fealo.

The colour of my mead, the colour of the autumn leaves that have been so spectacular this year, and the colour of Byrjtnoth’s sword hilt, at the moment that he fell.

Never let anyone tell you that this was the Dark Ages. It was full of Colour and Poetry.

And mourning for the end of life.

The Garden in Autumn.

The Garden in Autumn.

The best it can be?

I am thinking about re-writing my book.

Why on earth am I thinking of something so drastic? I don’t want to do it, but aren’t we told to make our work the best it can be?

For a long time I have been worrying about the start. I have written before on whether to have a prologue or not, and if so what it should be. I eventually decided to ditch the prologue and as I had received favourable remarks about the start, it remained. Not untouched, it had gone through my editing with slight changes, but essentially it remained the same piece of writing that came from an exercise in class nearly four years ago. This is a long time ago and I think (hope) that my writing has improved since then.

When submitting to agents, publishers etc. You have to send the first chapter/1000 words/3000 words etc plus synopsis. I had thought the first chapter was OK, but had the feeling it wasn’t as good as “that scene later on, when…”

The book is written in the third person from the protagonist’s (Byrhtnoth) point of view, except for occasions when he is not around.

Recently I was lying in bed, worrying about that first chapter and thought “Why not try it in the first person?”. In the next writing class we were talking about opposites and the homework was to write a scene about two characters showing the differences between them. The two ideas clashed and fused. I rewrote the first scene in the book in the first person, but it wasn’t from Byrhtnoth’s POV, it was Wulfstan’s, his friend. The scene is the first time they meet. I had used Wulfstan in the prologues, looking back and saying he was going to write the story of Byrhtnoth – now he was telling it!

It was easy to write and I enjoyed it. I don’t like to brag, but it was good. I could carry on and write the whole of the first chapter in his voice. The second chapter would have to be completely rewritten, difficult but possible. But what happens then?

The plot divides, Byrhtnoth and Wulfstan part, taking different paths. They meet later and separate again. In fact for a lot of the book, Byrhtnoth is on his own. You might say, why not make Byrhtnoth the narrator? It wouldn’t work, I don’t know why, but Byrhtnoth doesn’t look back – he acts. Wulfstan remembers and writes it down.

What do I do?

I could use my new piece (500 words) which take place outside a door and continue with the original chapter in  third person – through the door.
Write the whole first chapter (3k+ words – it has been three shorter chapters!) in first person. The main characters are aged 7.
The second chapter is five years later, more action and Byrhtnoth soon leaves. It really needs to be third person. Should I add a first person intro? But then would have to continue throughout the book. Would it interrupt the action?

We were talking about NaNoWriMo at class last week, I said I might use it to re-write the book from scratch in first person. I don’t know if I could do it. It would be a completely different book, perhaps better, perhaps a waste of time.

Perhaps I should just wait for some feedback from my Beta Readers!

I think writing this post is helping me to clarify things, although I would welcome comments.

The Prologue

Does anyone else hear the phrase “The Prologue” in the voice of Frankie Howerd? No? Just me then.

Anyway, end of term at the writing group and we’ve got to the prologue. After classes on finding inspiration, describing places and characters and discovering the difference between story and plot.

We looked at different types of prologues and found there are three main types:

A hook – short, full of action and ending with something about to happen.

A generalized framework – looking back at the story, establishing the feeling and tone of the main plot

The teaser prologue – a highly charged scene from your book, but left without resolution.

Note: Some of this class was based on the ideas of James Scott Bell.

In class I wrote some good prologues for my second book. I can’t wait to read it. Don’t know what it will be about, I haven’t started writing, but it sounds exciting!

I have already written two different prologues for my present WIP. I think they are the second, generalised, type, but I have a problem,

Which to use? – or none?

Can you help? I will share them here and you can vote on which you prefer at the end of the post.

First is the start of the book, without any prologue:

He had come a long way. He was tired and hungry, but he had arrived at last. Was this the right door? The building stretched away into the darkness. There must be some other, smaller entrance. Surely they didn’t expect him to enter the hall through this door.
He had never seen a door like it. Where he came from you were lucky to have a door at all, perhaps a piece of hide to keep out some of the draughts or a couple of planks of wood. This was so big.
He stared up.It was several times his own height and heavy. Good solid oak, thick enough to keep out an army. There was metalwork on the door as well, fantastic interlaced patterns. Was that real gold? Who owned enough gold to use it to decorate their door? The hinges were massive, to match the size of the door, and great ornamental handles. The blacksmith back at the village sometimes made ornamental work for the lord’s hall, but nothing like this.
The posts enclosing the door were covered in carvings. Animals climbed to the top. There were horses and dragons. Birds flew upwards or fought with mythical beasts. They were painted in bright colours, and there was gold here as well. At the top of the door was another carving, a ferocious beast, the sign of the king who owned the Hall.
He sniffed and wiped his nose with his sleeve. It was so cold out here and he heard sounds of feasting inside. It must be warm in there, and he might manage to grab some food. He tugged at the bottom of his tunic. It was so short it was barely decent. His mother said he grew out of his clothes as soon as he got them. He sniffed again, but this time to hold back the tears. His mother wouldn’t be moaning at him any more.
He realised another boy was standing beside him. If anything the newcomer was even thinner than him. He was smaller as well and stared up at him with scared dark eyes through long, straggly black hair.
“Are we supposed to go through there?”
“I don’t know”
At that moment the door was flung open and a man stood there, a big man with a greying beard and a red face.
“What are you doing hanging around out here?” He bellowed back at someone out of their view “There are another couple of starvelings for you, that must be the last of them”
He held the door open for them.
“Well, are you coming in then?”

At some point I decided this was not interesting enough so I wrote the prologue that appears as the first post on this blog. Find it here.

Advice from the Arvon course forced me to write something more dramatic:

Where was it? He had to find the body.
The day had been long and the battle lost. The sun was nearing the horizon.
The land beside the river was soaked in blood. There was blood in the river too, but that merged into the reflexion of the crimson sun.
He must reach him; before the ravens and the wolves.
That must be the place, where the pile of dead was highest. His closest companions would have died beside him.
He slipped and nearly fell. A foul stink rose up, a pile of guts. He followed them back to a body. He recognised the face, put it was not that of him he sought.
He stood up and looked around. Dark figures moved among the dead. There would be nothing to scavenge, if that was what they seeked. The Vikings had taken everything of value. Perhaps they were searching for relatives, or like him, for a friend.
The sunlight caught on something; a piece of gold embroidery. Was that the trim of the tunic he had put on that morning?
It couldn’t be him. His friend was taller; a giant among men. He started to turn away, but something made him look again. He dragged bodies from the heap. His personal banner; never far from him. He recognised a hand. So often he had seen it wielding a sword. A bloody wound near severed it from the arm. Nothing less would have caused him to drop that sword. Where was it? Taken by the enemy.
It was growing dark. He pulled on the arm and the great body followed. He tried to touch his friend’s face, but his hand found nothing. He felt the broad shoulders and then, above the neck, nothing. He felt a blood soaked flap of skin and a hard knob of bone.
They had taken his head. Chopped clumsily from his body by the stroke of an axe. Taken as a token of their victory.
He sat back on his heels, oblivious of the blood that soaked his rough robe. His first reaction was relief. At least he would not be forced to look into the dead eyes of his friend.
He shouted for help and people came with a bier. He would carry his friend back to the monastery at Ely. He would wash his body and anoint it with expensive oils. He would wrap it in the finest linen cloth and lay the broken body in its grave. He would mourn his friend until he himself died.
Better than that, he would write the story of this man’s life. This was the last thing he would do for him, his lifelong friend.

Which do you prefer? Which makes you want to continue reading?


Feel free to add any comments below.



Christine Hancock has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

Please do not reproduce or copy without prior consent from the author.

The Battle of Maldon

On this day in the year 991, one thousand and twenty-four years ago, a battle took place.

A Viking expedition had been sent to plunder Anglo-Saxon England.

King Æthelred sent an army lead by Byrhtnoth, Earldorman of Essex, to defend the coast. The Vikings landed on Northey Island, near Maldon in Essex. They demanded money to sail away again, but Byrhtnoth refused. A battle was fought and Byrhtnoth was killed and most of his companions died with him.

It was not a major battle. The next time the Vikings came the King paid them off.

It is famous because later, perhaps within a generation, a poem was written about the battle. It is one of the few surviving poems of this period.

To find out more about the poem see this fascinating post by A Clerk of Oxford.

In 1991 I attended the millennium event at Maldon.

Battle of Maldon Programme

I will write about that another time.