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.

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.

Easter Break

A very short post today. More to stop Facebook nagging me than anything else!

Hot Cross Buns, straight from the oven.

I haven’t done much this last week. I have discovered how making hot cross buns stops you writing – make and leave to rise, knead and leave, add crosses and put in oven. Take out of oven and add sugar syrup, leave to cool. Eat. No time to settle down to serious writing.

While procrastinating, I have discovered that Easter is NOT based on the worship of an Anglo-Saxon goddess called Eostre. It was all a guess by Bede.

Easter Bunnies only go back to the nineteenth century. I’m surprised it is as long ago as that – I don’t remember him at all when I was young.

Like the week before, I was getting close to my 7k target, by the end of Friday. But on Saturday I was due to give a tour of the town – 2 o’clock on Saturday afternoon (the afternoon is my usual writing time) The weather forecast was not very good, could I get out of it? The morning was dry, I would have to go. I got ready, I would have to leave the house at 1.30. At 1.25 there was a downpour of rain. I rang the visitor centre. No one had made enquiries for the walk. No one was waiting. They agreed that it was unlikely anyone would turn up. I was free. I sat down and wrote 1700 words.

So, apologies to anyone who really wanted a tour of rain soaked Rugby on Easter Saturday afternoon. Your sacrifice enabled me to smash this weeks target. I had written 8057 words in a week.

I felt so pleased, that I decided to have a day off – it was Easter Sunday after all. I gave myself permission to just sit and read. The fact that the latest book by Matthew Harffy was published that day had absolutely nothing to do with it.

The problem was, I relaxed (well as relaxed as you can be when the slaughter dew is flying in seventh century Northumbria), I started to sneeze, my nose streamed. The cold I had kept at bay by keeping busy had arrived.

By the evening I had a temperature – I must have – that Agatha Christie film on TV can’t have been quiet as confusing and surreal as it appeared to me!

I am writing this with a box of tissues at my side. Should I fight back by trying to write, or return to reading? Having left Beobrand in the middle of a battle, I think I know the answer to that.

Normal service will be returned as soon as possible – probably with a few book reviews.

Happy Easter Monday.

Looking Back – A review of 2017

So much has happened this year. I started with one book written and a second started. I ended the year awaiting the publication of the first book, Bright Sword, in four weeks time. The second, Bright Axe (probably) is with beta readers and a third, yet to be named in progress. How did all this happen?

By January, I had received my first feedback for Bright Sword. The book was OK but contained lots of errors. I knew it needed a professional edit and made arrangements.

This was also when I decided to become more organised. I worked out how many words I needed to write – I settled on a thousand a day, which worked out at 7K a week. I announced it on this blog. Although I haven’t often reached the target, it encouraged me to sit down regularly, whether I wanted to write or not. I have created a routine: after lunch I go upstairs to the old computer in the spare room, and write, sometimes an hour, sometimes I continue into the evening (with breaks for tea.)

In February, I seem to have done nothing much except write, and start to think about publication. I was planning on self publishing – When? How could I do it? There was one landmark this month, another author asked me to write a preview of his book, before publication. This was Kin of Cain, a short book (100 pages) by Matthew Harffy. This was an easy job, it was so good; better, if that is possible, than his other books in the Bernicia Chronicles series. Read my preview here.

March was spent worrying about how many corrections I would receive from my editor.

At the beginning of April I got the manuscript back. Not too bad, but my punctuation appeared to be even worse than I thought. There was a bit of discussion about one of the characters and in the end I added a couple more scenes – only about a hundred words or so. At the end of that month, I attended the Self Publishing Conference, to make  a final decision about which avenue to take. There are so many different options nowadays, that I ended up more confused than ever. Someone suggested The Book Guild. You don’t need an agent, or to prepare a synopsis (although I had one). Just send your complete manuscript and they might offer one of several options. I had nothing to lose.

In May, as I struggled with the ending of book two, a bombshell struck. A (very) famous author, Conn Iggulden had published a book set in exactly the same period I was writing (mid tenth century). It was about Dunstan, who appears, briefly, in my book. What could I do? I read the book and wrote a review. I didn’t think much of it, although other people raved over it. Was I jealous? Perhaps, but I’ve put it behind me now.

At the start of June I heard back from the publisher. They wanted to publish my book. They offered me a partnership deal, which I accepted. I was on my way!

It was in June that I finished the first draft of book two (104,542 words) and started editing. I also went on holiday – an archaeological tour of Orkney and Shetland. It was somewhere I had wanted to go for a long time, and since it was our 40th wedding anniversary this year, I managed to persuade my husband that he would survive the ferry journey. Luckily the sea was calm and the weather beautiful. I learned a lot about pre-history and Vikings, but there was not much about Anglo-Saxons. I took lots of photos which can be found on a series of posts, starting here.

Coppergate Helmet, modelled by the author.

One the way back we stopped for a couple of days in Yorkshire. A bit of research and a trip to the Jorvik exhibition in York. More Vikings, but at least I got to try on an Anglo-Saxon helmet. It was a bit too big for me! Another day, on a walk near Wharrem Percy deserted village I was inspired by wind blowing across a field of grain. By the time we  returned to our hotel I had the plot for book three. (And that is all I’m going to say about it!)

In July, we headed north again. This time to Lindisfarne. We had booked a day’s archaeology at the Digventures site, searching for the remains of the original Anglo-Saxon monastery. Unfortunately it was very wet. We only got an hour in the trench and an afternoon cleaning pieces of bone, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. There was also a little time to explore the area for book two research (and perhaps book four!!)

At the end of August, proofs arrived. A whole new experience. It was at this, rather late, point that I discovered that I had been let down by my editor. All those punctuation mistakes that had been pointed out, were not mine. Most of them had been OK and I had “corrected” them to something wrong. Details here. It was nearly a disaster. It was a big job to rewrite the book and search for other errors at the same time. There were several runs though and gradually I signed off on the final half dozen errors. I never wanted to see that book again!

September was busy, writing reviews of books, finding people to review mine. I volunteered to review Viking Fire by Justin Hill. A great book  reminiscent of Dorothy Dunnett.  I had reviewed her book, King Hereafter, in July but in September was noticed by the fanatics (in the nicest possible way) of the Dorothy Dunnett Society, making it my most popular post this year, at 168 views.

It was also September when I found Bright Sword was listed on Amazon. I thinks it was at that point that I knew it was really happening.

In October, author G K Holloway approached me out of the blue to review his book, 1066 , What Fates Impose He has since reviewed mine and beta read book two – it’s better than Bright Sword apparently.

It was in November, with Bright Sword on track and book two on pause, I started book three. It is causing a few problems, which I’ll talk about another time, but I have written just over 30k words.

With preparing for Christmas, setting up launch events, etc and writing; book and blog posts, I have been busy.

I have taken a week off for Christmas, read a few books, and now stand on the edge of a new year. Where will I be this time next year? I’ll write a few thoughts about that tomorrow – if I am in a fit state.

Writing update for the year: I have written about 118K words of historical fiction. Words deleted and edited – unknown, but a lot.

I have written 53 blog posts – more than one per week. Say an average of one thousand (this is 1166) makes 53K.

Total 171K. No wonder I’m feeling tired!

Thank you to everyone who has helped/supported/encouraged me during this amazing year.

In 2018, may you finish/publish/sell your own books – and if you don’t write; read and add a review to someone else’s.

Just so long as it’s called Bright Sword!

FAREWELL 2017 – HERE I COME 2018!

 

 

 

Review – Killer of Kings

I enjoy writing reviews of Matthew Harffy’s books. It is such an easy job with writing this good.

Killer of Kings is the fourth book in the Bernicia Chronicles series and Beobrand, recovered from his injuries, is on the road again. This time he is travelling to East Anglia. King Oswald has asked him to accompany a group of monks taking a present to King Sigeberht. They come across a village in flames. Beobrand tries to help, but he is outside his own king’s lands and is forced to leave. He rescues one girl, but already he suffers the guilt of leaving innocent people to die.

Reaching East Anglia they find the king has retired to a monastery and his relative Ecgric is king. Neither of them seem interested in defending their land from attack from King Penda’s Mercia and Beobrand realises he has been sent to support the East Anglian army.

The armies meet in a long and bloody battle. Beobrand narrowly escapes, but without his men and his horse. With an old friend he travels to Kent, meeting relatives for the first time since he left for Bernicia. In previous books one phrase has recurred – his mother’s dying words “You are not your father’s son”. Beobrand discovers the truth, but it is even worse than he suspected.

On the journey home he attempts to fulfil his vow to kill the man who defiled and killed his wife. Nothing goes as planned.

Meanwhile, back at Ubbanford, Reaghan worries, surrounded by  people who hate or despise her, what will happen to her if Beobrand doesn’t return?

Like the previous books, this volume is filled with blood and guts. The reader can have fun counting the different synonyms for blood, although I sometimes find it annoying.

Beobrand is developing as a character. He worries that he is unable to deal with the memories of the death he deals his enemies. The only way he seems to find peace is by more killing, but even revenge cannot sooth his soul. He feels the loss of his hearth companions deeply, they died because of him, he should not have survived. With the loss of his horse as well, I am starting to wonder if his mind can survive this sort of pressure. Where can the author take his character next? It will be interesting to find out.

I started reading the book one evening, I could have finished that night, but I forced myself to stop. I had things to do the next day, but I wanted to prolong the enjoyment. After all, I’ll have to wait many months to read the next instalment, to find out if Beobrand can find peace.

Definitely another five stars.

Preview – Kin of Cain

Matthew Harffy has written three books in the The Bernicia Chronicles series. They are about Beobrand a young thegn in 7th century Northumbria. You can  read my review of the second in the series, The Cross and the Curse here. The fourth instalment will be published later this year.

kin-of-cainKin of Cain is a novella (86 pages), to be published on 1st March. It is a gobbet of flesh tossed by the author to keep his readers quiet. I had already ordered it, but was offered a ARC for review. It is a prequel to the main series, set several years earlier. Beobrand’s elder brother Octa, is new to the household of King Edwin and desperate to prove himself.

As usual with this author, it is straight into the action. A cheerful winter’s night in the mead hall is interrupted by a scream. It is a simple tale, one of the oldest. An invincible monster roams the land. The king sends his best warriors to destroy it. Octa is pleased to be chosen as one of them, he soon changes his mind. The trail takes them through a mysterious, mist covered marsh, to towering cliffs and thundering seas. Will they catch the monster? Is it an animal, or something else. Can it be killed? Who will die and who survive?

The only fault, for me, is the use of the term “slaughter-dew”, an Old English  kenning. It suggests a bath oil for shield maidens. But with so much blood spilt, another word is definitely needed. It sprinkles on the ground, it drips from torn flesh and smears the blades of weapons.

I loved the twist at the end, where connections are made and loose ends tied.

This is a great book, to be consumed on a winter’s evening in your favourite chair, perhaps with a glass of red. A distraction from the never-ending news of pontificating politicians.

Better still, huddle close to the hearth in your lord’s hall. Sip your mead as the scop recites this song of heroes.

But beware. What is that screaming, out in the winter darkness?

My first #HistFic Conference #HNSOxford16

Apologies for the strange title – I’ve been doing rather a lot of Tweeting recently!

Last week I promised to write about the Historical Novel Society conference in Oxford. With getting on for 300 attendees: writers, readers and others interested in writing historical novels, most of whom probably write blogs, why write another? Why read another?

Because I promised, and I always keep my promises and also because everyone’s experience will be different. This is mine.

I arrived at St Anne’s College about 4.30 Friday afternoon, pushed out of a car further down the road (where were you supposed to park?) in a torrential downpour. It didn’t seem like an auspicious start. A change of clothes and a cup of coffee later and I was ready to cross the road to the Andrew Wiles Building. Of course I was early, but there seemed to be no-one about – eventually I realised everything was happening downstairs. I collected my badge, picked out a goody bag and settled down to rummage through it. I discovered that others were more interested in the weight of the bag, rather than the contents. They were those who had travelled from afar – I was amazed to discover how many had come from the U.S. It put my one and a half hour drive in perspective.

Goody Bags

Plenty of Goody Bags – which to pick?

Then it was time for the official Welcome and “The Big House Story” – a conversation with Fay Weldon and Jo Baker. This was an interesting discussion about writing from the point of view of servants, such as Longbourn, Jo’s book inspired by Pride and Prejudice. I think there might have been a problem with Fay Weldon’s microphone as I had difficulty hearing her. I should say here that apart from this, the sound was excellent in the main hall and the other venues.

This was followed by Wine and Canapés. I wish I had stopped chatting long enough to taste more of the enticing canapés. We were turned out at 8.30, so I retired to the pub opposite. Shared a table with three Americans and two other Brits. Interesting that I was the only one writing about British history.

Fay Weldon and Jo Baker discuss servants.

Fay Weldon and Jo Baker discuss servants.

I slept very well in my comfortable garret (up three flights of stairs) and was practically first in line for breakfast (very good). First on for Saturday was a Panel Session “The Next Big Thing in Historical Fiction.” To which the answer is “Nobody knows.” Agents are looking for one thing, publishers another; you must please the marketing department and attract the book shops. The Tudor era is overloaded, but a WW2 saga might be popular.

Straight after this was the session I was looking forward to: “Building a Shield Wall.”, run by Paula Lofting and other members of Regia Anglorum. The first thing we were told was that the Angl0-Saxons didn’t drink mead. So that’s half my book out the window! We found out a lot about the clothing – especially how difficult it is to get into a mail shirt, especially in front of a large audience in a very small room. We discovered the difference between round and kite shaped shields and the advantages, and disadvantages, of fighting on foot and on horseback. They moved out into the atrium to demonstrate the actual setting up of a shield wall, causing consternation to other delegates, who had their coffee break shattered by the cry of Ut! Ut! Ut!

(There is some film and a much shorter post about the conference on Ruth Downie’s blog)

So that's what the Anglo-Saxons used for their Powerpoint presentations

So that’s what the Anglo-Saxons used for their Powerpoint presentations!

Saxon warrior brought to his knees by lady in sensible shoes (and an axe)

Saxon warrior brought to his knees by lady in sensible shoes (and an axe)

Shield Wall

Ut! Ut! Ut!

After all that excitement we returned to the main hall for the Keynote address by Melvyn Bragg. His latest book, “Now Is The Time” is about the Peasants Revolt and he talked about the difference between Historical Fact, which you have to obey, and Historical Fiction, which is the bits that you don’t know. You can make it up but must stick to the spirit of the character. If you research enough around the events, you should be able to recreate what they might have said. Bought the book afterwards (although service at the bookstall was a bit slow.) and got it signed.

Melvyn Bragg making a point.

Melvyn Bragg making a point.

After that was lunch, sandwiches and fruit – very nice sliced pineapple, followed by the presentation of the awards.

Presentation to Joint winner of the HNA Indie Award, Lucienne Boyce

Presentation to Joint winner of the HNA Indie Award 2016, Lucienne Boyce

Straight after that was another panel, Battle Scenes: Guts, gore and glory. No, not a replay of the awards, but a talk by authors famous for writing dramatic and life-like scenes of battle. It was rather skewed towards the Romans – anyone would have thought that the Romans fought a lot of battles! There was much discussion of classical sources. Why did neither of the Anglo-Saxon supporters mention the Battle of Maldon! I’m not sure I learned much (about writing battle scenes) but it was an entertaining session.

Justin Hill, Matthew Harffy, Harry Sidebottom, Douglas Jackson and Simon Scarrow talk Battles

Justin Hill, Matthew Harffy, Harry Sidebottom, Douglas Jackson and Simon Scarrow talk Battles

Time for a cup of coffee. Biscuits were advertised but I didn’t see them – just as well. Then it was into another workshop: Creating Fictional Historical Characters, with Jean Fullerton. This was in the same small room that had been used for the Shield Wall re-enactors. I don’t know if someone had misjudged the numbers, but there was even less space. More people kept appearing and tables were shoved up and chairs brought in from elsewhere. We learned the does and don’ts of creating heroes and villains. I must have been getting tired as all I remember was the warning – “Don’t kill the kittens!” your reader will never forgive you.

Exactly!

Exactly!

The final session was back in the main hall Kate Williams, Margaret George and Manda Scott on “Faith and Morality in historical fiction and biography.” Like the last session, this was  about thinking about the differences between how people lived and believed in earlier times and how we think about things nowadays. There was a discussion  about how you can never get the truth of any event, however modern. We can only do the best we can with what we have. This was followed by an Introduction to HNSUS17 to be held in Portland, Oregon on June 22nd-24th, 2017. We were then allowed to go, to prepare for the Gala Dinner.

Is it Dinner Time yet?

Is it Dinner Time yet?

Back in my room at St Anne’s, I lay exhausted on the bed. Could I take any more? Yes I could. After a wash and brush up I descended the three flights of concrete stairs in my posh dress and glittery shoes. It was a short walk to the Dining Hall. It seemed a long time since breakfast that morning. Music was playing and wine bottles were on the tables. Here and there were delegates dressed in historical costume, ready for the Costume Pageant. I was joined by Clare Lehovsky whom I had met on an Arvon course at The Hurst, a year ago. I had met other friends from that course during the conference, so it was something of a reunion. An American gentleman sat opposite, Christopher Cevasco. We discussed our books and discovered he was also writing about the 10th century. I don’t know if there were any more in the room, not many I suspect. Also sitting opposite was Richard Buxton, a Welshman writing about the U.S. Confused and I hadn’t even had a drink – yet.

Chris and Richard. Managed to include the menu as well

Chris and Richard. Managed to include the menu as well

Queuing up for the Costume Pageant. Clare in white top - 1920s

Queuing up for the Costume Pageant. Clare in white top – 1920s

C C Humphreys reading from his book "Fire" I've already bought two books about 1666, do I need another?

C C Humphreys reading from his book “Fire” I’ve already bought two books about 1666, do I need another?

The highlight of the evening was an invitation (after much nagging) to handle a Seax.

Thank You Matthew (Come up to my room and I'll show you my Seax) Harffy

Thank You, Matthew “Come up to my room and I’ll show you my Seax” Harffy

I was up bright and early the next morning for my Full English breakfast, ready for the final day of the conference. There was to be a lot of running back and forth today. I had two pitch sessions booked. I will draw a veil over them, except to say that they have given me a lot to think about.

I just managed to get to the “Streets through the Ages” Panel just before it started.  Here we were given descriptions of life in different eras. Gordon Jackson spoke about Romans, Carol McGrath about Medieval – 14th century (not Anglo-Saxon I’m afraid) Jenny Barden took us back to the Elizabethan period and Charlotte was not left much time for the 17th century. We were running late and everyone wanted to get to the main hall for the talk by Tracy Chevalier.

Tracy Chevalier addressing a packed Hall

Tracy Chevalier addressing a packed Hall

It was strange to discover that such and English seeming author as Tracy Chevalier spoke with an American accent. Although she has lived here a long time but hasn’t lost it. She talked about how distancing yourself in history makes it easier to write, although you have to spend a lot of time on research. If you write about the modern-day everyone asks if it’s autobiographical! That said, we heard something about a book she has been working on recently: a re-working of Othello set in a 1970s school playground.

Unfortunately I had to miss the questions part of this talk, but made it to the Session on “Time Slip; Time Travel” This is a genre which I enjoy reading. I might have a go at it myself, sometime. Anna Belfrage and Christina Courtenay explained about the difference between Time Slip, in which the characters do not actually physically travel back in time and Time Travel, when they do. You have to think carefully about the method of travel, how to emphasise the differences between your two eras. We finished with a competition. Who could think of the best method of time travel – the winner was someone who suggested shoes.

I didn’t make the HistFictionalist Challenge – too busy talking again. Missed the wrap up as well. I think my sense of time was getting adrift! I had some lunch, drifted around for a bit and then left. I didn’t want to leave. I walked into the centre of Oxford and as I returned to pick up my lift, got lost. I eventually found my way back, tired and foot worn. I had to return to real life.

So, what did I think of my first HNA Conference? I enjoyed it immensely – so much to do, so many people to meet: old friends, new friends, twitter friends. Sorry if I haven’t mentioned you in this blog, but you are in my thoughts.

Would I go again? Like a shot. Perhaps not next year, but when it is held in the UK again.