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?

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Memories – coming and going.

As I suspected, it’s been a busy week. I managed 4,475 words. Since I only found time to write on three days, I don’t think I did too badly.

The first two days were fine, 1,026 and 1,014. Tuesday morning I had a dentists appointment and was unable eat any lunch. Still numb, I had to pick up an elderly relative for a hospital appointment, at a hospital an hour’s drive away. It was a minor outpatients procedure, so there was a lot of waiting around. I don’t mind that – plenty of time to read! On this occasion though the Elderly Relative suffers from memory problems. I couldn’t read because every five minutes I had to explain where we were and why we were there, where we had come from and where we would be returning to etc, etc, etc – for five hours, including the short break while ER had the operation. Tired and hungry, I was wiped out for the rest of the day.

It is terrible watching someone you know gradually disappear, but at the same time interesting to witness what goes and what remains. ER has been in a care home for over a year, but every day is new because they have no memory of the time they have been there. Sometimes ER gets agitated, usually in the afternoon. We thought it was due to tiredness, but no. It was straight after lunch and ER insisted they had to “look after the children”. Eventually we worked out that ER had, a long time ago, worked as a school “dinner lady” – I don’t suppose such a job exists any more –  someone who had to look after / entertain / read to the children after their lunch, until they were handed back to the teachers. Why had ER remembered this particular job, performed for a short time, over fifty years ago?

What has this got to do with writing? It started me thinking about point of view and the unreliable narrator. How would someone with memory problems view the action in a book?

To continue. When I did manage to do some reading, it was on my Kindle. It was a book I had purchased a while ago, perhaps it had been on special offer, or I liked the cover. When I decided to read it, I noticed that Kindle thought I had already read it – 100%. I didn’t remember reading it, perhaps I had accidentally clicked on the final page. The first few pages looked familiar – perhaps I had read them and then got interrupted. I scrolled forward to something I didn’t recognise and continued. As I read I knew that I had read it before, but at no time did I know what came next. Was it a bad book? No. It was the first of a series and I have downloaded the next book. Was I distracted by something else (my own book?) at the time. I don’t know, because I don’t remember.

Another example. I mentioned last week that I might discuss the second series of The Last Kingdom that has just started. I have read most of Bernard Cornwell’s books. The ones in this series I read as they came out. I watched this first episode. I didn’t recognise the story at all. It must be the film makers messing up the plot, I thought. It annoyed me, so I looked up the book – the TV is onto the third book “The Lords of the North“. So far the TV is sticking to the book. I “know” I have read this book, why have I forgotten it? Perhaps it is because Bernard Cornwell has written a lot of books. It was first published in 2008; a lot of books have passed under my bridge since then. Of course it might be that I hadn’t actually read that book.

Before I become too worried and join ER in the care home, another example of memory.

A new character has entered my book. I have been thinking about her since I started (yes, I know I don’t plan, but…) and have been dropping hints about her – she is slightly mysterious and I don’t even have a name for her yet. I was thinking about her and her part in the plot, while watching TV – as you do – and two ideas collided. I realised that anyone reading my book would think I had based her on the character in a fairy story. I hadn’t intended to. Had I plucked from some genetic memory? These tales are very old? Or had I just read, or had read to me, too many fairy stories when I was young?

Writing is strange. Where do our ideas come from?

Don’t forget to come back next week to find out how my writing is going.

Axes, Wolves and Underpants

Those of us who write historical fiction must research. We are told we should spend a lot of time in research, then forget most of it, using it as background to take our readers into the everyday life of our characters. It is small details that can do that – the sort of small details that a “real” expert of the period will notice. You must not get them wrong.

I am not a historian, just someone who reads a lot of books. Or is that the definition of a historian? Let us just say that I have no official qualifications. I tend to do my research as it’s needed – on Wikipedia in an emergency. My problem is that I get caught up in the details, thinking to deeply about things.

Some recent examples:

I have been watching the recent television series 1966 – A Year to Conquer England. It is not a bad series although tending towards the habit of most historical programs nowadays of telling you what they are going to say, then saying it – several times and in different ways, finishing up with telling you what they have just said. All interspersed with random battle scenes. It has good presenters, experts and some well-known actors.

What worries me are the axes – big axes. I’m not complaining about the size, or how they are used in battle. My question is: what do you do with them when you are not using them? Contrary to the popular idea, the Anglo-Saxons, or Vikings were not fighting all the time. I suppose if you relaxing at home you might hang your axe on the wall, or prop it in the corner. Harald Hardrada in the 1066 program seems to carry his the whole time, threatening everyone with it, or hanging it over his shoulder. Does he take it to bed with him?

What did the average axe wielder do when, for example, he was travelling. Did he carry it in one hand all the time? I suppose if he was riding a horse, he might hang it from the saddle. The thing that worries me – axes are sharp (they have to be if you need to chop someone’s head off at a moments notice.) Swords are sharp, so are knives and seaxes, they all have their own scabbard. Do axes have a scabbard? What do they look like? I have never seen one. They must have had a way of protecting the blade, from weather, inquisitive fingers of small children, etc.

These are the sort of things that keep me awake at night.

Another thing is underwear, men’s underwear. I understand they might wear a loin cloth of a type of boxer short called braies. I have spent a lot of time wondering about this – and not just imagining my  main character wearing them, wet after a quick swim in a river. But enough of that!

If your average Anglo-Saxon warrior was going on a journey, did he pack an extra pair? Did he change them regularly; perhaps wash them out and hung them in front of the camp fire to dry. It’s never shown in the films or TV programs.

Perhaps I should mention here that a new series of The Last Kingdom, starts this week. I shall probably be commenting here next week, or read what I wrote about the first series here and here. From what I’ve seen on the trailers, it hasn’t improved. If I spot any braies I’ll let you know, but I don’t think Uhtred wears them.

Then there are the wolves. Recently I have been looking up the size of their feet, and did you know how interesting their dropping are? If anyone knows how to rip out a wolf’s throat with your bare hands, please let me know.

Finally, this weeks word count is 6,886. I would have reached 7,000 if I hadn’t had to stop and watch the Rugby.

I’ve got a lot on this week, so I’m not sure how I’ll much I’ll manage – probably more if I stopped worrying about the details.

The Last Kingdom, the last episode

WARNING: Discusses aspects of the plot, so don’t continue if you haven’t seen the final episode.

Last night I sat down and watched the final episode of The Last Kingdom.

Has my opinion changed from when I wrote about the television series a few weeks ago?

First I should say that I enjoyed the series. I would have probably enjoyed it more if I hadn’t already read the books, but most of the time I sat back and enjoyed the action. The acting was good and there was enough humour to counteract the violence. Money had been spent, so that the final battle of Ethandun was suitably spectacular.

Pale Horseman cover

The later half of the series was based on the second book by Bernard Cornwell, The Pale Horseman. It is some time since I read it – I see it was published in 2005 – so ten years ago. I had to dash off to the library to borrow a copy. It was interesting reading the book and watching the programme in tandem. I have leant a lot about merging characters and the problems that might cause.

A good example was the fight between Uhtred and Leofric. I was confused about it, why had Leofric turned against Uhtred? It just didn’t ring true. A good cliff hanger and you think – Oh they’ve got a plan to get out of it next week. No, they fought, were interrupted by the Danish attack and rode off best of friends.

When I read the book, I understood what had been done. Uhtred had to fight Steapa Snotor, henchman of Odda the Younger. This wonderfully named warrior (no, Snotor isn’t what you think, it means “the wise” – because the character is very stupid!) has been cut from the TV version of the story altogether. Therefore:

On the journey to meet Odda the Younger they stop at Uhtred’s Hall – not Steapa’s village which has been burnt and makes him angry.

When they do meet Odda the Younger, it made sense in the book that Odda would tell Steapa to continue the fight, to kill Uhtred, but he turns and kills his former master. In the filmed version it is obvious that Leofric wouldn’t kill his friend, so Odda the Elder has to kill his own son.

Another change  is that for this journey in the book, Alfred stays behind, as does Iseult. Uhtred is told she will be killed if he doesn’t return, which puts Uhtred under pressure.

So, why is Alfred creeping around in the background in disguise? Because they have merged this scene with another – a trip to the Danish camp at Chippenham. In the book Alfred pretends to be a harpist to spy on the Danes and Uhtred has to rescue him, along with Aethelwold and a raped nun (Hild – another two characters merged into one.) This, in its turn, is based on the original story of Alfred singing for Guthrum and the Danes.

The more I think about it, the more I realise the amount of effort that has been put in to tell the same story (much of the dialogue is identical) while slimming down the cast and venues. It is something to think about in my own book. Should I consider merging several characters into one? Or shall I leave that to the script writers when they film it? Perhaps the market for Anglo-Saxon television series has now closed?

Returning to the final episode. Leofric is now dead. What will happen to Steapa? This character appears in the later books.

Over the final scene, where they ride off into the sunset (a bit of a cliché, but it’s what you expect) we were told that the series will continue. I look forward to it.

But, who was riding into the future?

Uhtred, obviously.
I think I have got used to him, now he has got a bit rougher round the edges. In fact, while reading The Pale Horseman my vision of him swung between Sean Bean and Alexander Dreymon.

Hild.
Not so obvious from the TV version (or the book) but she is a main character later on. And Uhtred needs a girl to hump!

Who was the third?
It looked like the boy who appeared in the final episode.
According to the cast list he is called Halig – not a name that appears in the books (as far as I know). I think I heard it as Pyrlig and thought “Father Pyrlig has changed a lot!”.Warriors of the Storm cover

If you want to find out about Father Pyrlig who, according to the book, was at the battle (I suspect Beocca must have been merged with that character) why not read the book(s)?

 

There are now nine in the series. In the most recent, Warriors of the Storm, published only a few months ago. Uhtred is a grandfather (perhaps there’s hope for Sean Bean yet.) and Brida reappears. I’ll say no more.

 

Except… Please, in the next series, give them the right shields and sort out the clothes.

The Last Kingdom, Book v Television

I have now watched the first four episodes of the BBC2 series of The Last Kingdom. Halfway through the series and it’s about time to voice my opinion. How does it compare with the books by Bernard Cornwell?

I started reading the Sharpe novels long before they were televised. I knew what Richard Sharpe looked like – he was tall and dark.
Then he appeared on TV in the shape of Sean Bean – this was not right. But after a while I got used to him, I saw the character in that form in the later books.

Sean Bean. Put him in a saxon tunic, change the sword and he’s Uhtred

Now, exciting as Mr Cornwell’s books are, the same characters turn up with different names. In the Grail Quest series, Thomas of Hookton is Sharpe with a bow. When Uhtred appeared in The Last Kingdon, the first of The Warrior Chronicles, he was Sharpe with a sword – and looked like Sean Bean! When I first heard that the book was to be made into a TV series I have been looking forward to it. I realise that Uhtred would be played by a different actor – Sean Bean is too old now (at least for the young Uhtred) and has become known as a character in another, slightly similar, series.

When Alexander Dreymon appeared, he was all wrong. Too dark, too pretty and as for that silly goatee beard and moustache, words fail me.

Alexander Dreymon. Stand well back Brida or he#ll have your eye out

Alexander Dreymon. Stand well back Brida or he’ll have your eye out.

One of the most distinctive characters in the books was Father Beocca – very ugly, with red hair, a squint, palsied hand and a club foot. Couldn’t they have given Ian Hart a limp in the TV version? I will probably get used to him, but he’s not “my” Father Beocca”.

That brings me on to the costumes. What on earth are they wearing? What is that strange tunic with the toggles on the shoulder. Once I spotted it on Beocca, it was everywhere. King Alfred’s dressing gown (well it looks like a dressing gown!) Oda, senior & junior, even Uhtred’s father. All slightly different. There are a couple of monks that appeared in several scenes – I am waiting for them to be joined by Rasputin. Are the costumes based on Russian jackets? Chinese? All I know is that they are not Saxon. Do the producers think we won’t be able to tell one character for another unless they are all dressed differently? Unfortunately that is probably true.

Typical Anglo-Saxon warrior

Typical Anglo-Saxon warrior

I don’t think I have seen one genuine Saxon tunic and as for winingas (leg windings – described here as “almost ubiquitous on manuscript depictions of men during the Anglo-Saxon period”) not a sign.

Then there is the equipment. I am waiting for the moment when Uhtred turns round suddenly and knocks someone out with that lump of amber on the end.
And the shields. I suppose they decided no-one would be able to tell the Danes from the Anglo-Saxons if they all had the same round shields (Hint – that’s why they painted them with different designs.). The unwieldy rectangular shields, described somewhere as redundant picnic tables, must have been left lying around by the Romans when they left 400 years earlier – together with instructions for the testudo or tortoise formation.

They can’t even get the basic facts right. In the fourth instalment, Uhtred is given some land. Wife and debt come attached – I’m OK with that. But that now makes him a Thegn, not an Ealdorman.

I could go on, but I’ll leave it there. After all the whole point of a book, or a film, is the story. The original books were (are) exciting and entertaining. The TV series has, thank goodness, stuck fairly close to them. By the end of the series I will probably come around and enjoy watching it.

After all I watched The Tudors for the pleasure of shouting at the screen
“He didn’t look like that.”
“She wouldn’t have done that.”
or “that didn’t happen there, and where did that wisteria come from?” or was that Wolf Hall?