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.

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 Battle of Maldon – Millennium

I was there, at the Battle of Maldon. Obviously Byrhtnoth was there – it couldn’t have happened without him. But the writer of this blog was there as well, almost exactly a thousand years later.

The Battle of Maldon Re-enactment Spectacular took place on the 10th and 11th August 1991. I took photos and I still have the Souvenir Programme, which I dug out when I started writing about Byrhtnoth. It’s very informative.

Recently I was clearing out the old family home in Chelmsford. The first things I went for were the photographs. Box after box of slides and prints – a whole life in pictures (not much in the way of old ancestors unfortunately, but that’s another story, or blog). I had scanned in my own pictures of the re-enactment and soon found some more in my father’s collection. When we moved on to sorting out books I found on a shelf, tucked away amongst cookery books and books about gardening, my parents copy of the programme, complete with, tickets etc.

So here, in pictures, is the story of a visit to the Battle of Maldon.

Flyer advertising the event

Flyer advertising the event

My father must have decided that this would be a family event. You can see his notes of the ticket prices:
4 adults – me, my sister and our husbands, 4 children – 2 each, 2 OAPs – my parents.

 

Ticket including map of site.

Ticket including map of site.

Mustn’t miss Maldon’s excellent shops and leisure opportunities – was that what the Vikings came for?

In the Burgh

In the Burh

Think this must be taken in the Maldon Burh – the encampment for the re-enactors. All the children wanted to do was to get their hands on the weapons.
(Don’t know who the Saxon is, but he looks very bored – must have spent most of the day posing for photos.)

Causeway to Northey Island

Causeway to Northey Island

Not sure if they are pretending to be attacking Vikings or defending Anglo-Saxons.

Viking Ship?

Viking Ship?

At 12.30 the Viking Longships arrive – was this it? The programme did say they are smaller replicas!

Now that's a Viking Longship!

Now that’s a Viking Longship!

The Saxon fyrd arrives

The Saxon fyrd arrives.

The Vikings appear.

The Vikings appear.

The Vikings taunt the Saxons?

The Vikings taunt the Saxons?

The attack

The Attack

Hold the Shieldwall!

Hold the Shieldwall!

Someone's on the ground - Must be the Death of Byrhtnoth.

Someone’s on the ground – Must be the Death of Byrhtnoth.

I don’t remember what we did during the evening (jazz band?) but I do remember the finale. According to the programme there was a performance of Tolkein’s “Homecoming of Beortnoth, Beorthelm’s son” followed by a Torchlight precession. All I can say is that the sound system was very bad and that we sat for what seemed hours, as a lot of people, a long way away, wandered around in the dark with torches. I have a video of this somewhere, but I don’t think you’d want to see it!

Finally, there was the Grand Firework Display, accompanied by music – The Ride of the Valkyries. I was a bit disappointed that we were at the Saturday performance, not the Sunday – that was when they burnt the Viking ship!

It was a long day, but worth it. I wish I’d paid more attention at the time, but I never thought that, twenty-five years later, I’d be writing a book about Byrhtnoth.

View of Maldon from Northey Island

View of Maldon from Northey Island