Christmas is coming – three times over.

Christmas is approaching rapidly, but I am unprepared. I am writing and find it difficult to stop.

But it is not going smoothly; those word updates do not measure an even progress from start to finish. I am darting about from place to place, never knowing where I am.

I never thought it would be easy. The approach of Book One to publication day. The pause with Book Two, awaiting feedback and more editing. The start of Book Three.

It is Book Three that is causing problems, perhaps because I started planning. Not major planning, just dividing the book into chunks – I have six, or maybe seven. See, I can’t do planning properly! A few weeks ago I wrote here about having found an antagonist. I wanted to give him a trial, so I wrote a scene, then another. This section of the book, for various reasons, I planned to write in the present tense. It would be interspersed with other POVs. So that I didn’t become confused, I decided to write the whole of this section, before moving back to past tense. It must have worked, because I then had difficulties shaking off the present tense. I had 9,000 words.

I knew what came next, I continued, another 9,000 words. The ideas were coming thick and fast, I wanted to carry on. Nothing wrong with this, you might say, in fact it’s great.

Except – I’ve got to stop. This section is towards the end of the book. I think I know where the end comes, but more and more words come spilling out and the end gets further away. What about what comes before? The main part of the book. Not only is it not yet written, I’m not even sure where it starts! With regret, I have forced myself to stop.

I have returned to the start. I have rewritten an abandoned ending to book two as the start of book three. I have written more, I think it is going OK.

But – As I write, the abandoned characters at the end keep calling to me, “Come back, we want to carry on.” While the same characters, at an earlier point in the story shout, “No, us first. We might change everything and you will never exist.” It is difficult enough, but the book covers a year in time, from winter to winter, Christmas to Christmas. Today, I had to stop and think – would he be wearing those clothes, or did he acquire them later. One Christmas is happy, the other not. There is snow one year and not the other.

And then there is real life, Christmas is coming. Will my mother end up with a sword. Will Byrhtnoth find a box set of Vikings DVDs under his tree?

Should I give up and spend the next month in bed?

No, because the voices are calling and I cannot silence them.

Box set for Byrhtnoth?


Review – Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?

Recently, in class, we have been learning about “Voice” and how different genres need to be written in a voice typical of that genre. I have had difficulty with this – I just write, without thinking about  how I do it. One of the genres we discussed was humour and Tom Holt’s book “Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?”. Someone lent me a copy. I loved it!

If you are the sort of reader that enjoys the idea of Vikings rampaging across Northern Scotland (or indeed, London) dressed in grey suits from Marks and Spencer – complete with swords and helmets, this is the book for you.

The story is simple. An ancient barrow is discovered, filled with a crew of sleeping Vikings. Clumsy archaeologist Hildy Frederiksen disturbs them, just in time to save the world from an evil Sorcerer-King. A standard fantasy  plot (I assume – I don’t read much fantasy.) that is high-jacked by the upending of expectations.

For example the Vikings, who talk and act as you would expect, are completely unfazed by the modern world. As people used to facing sorcerers and dragons, what is there to be feared in a double-decker bus? It’s just magic. They find there are places in Scotland that they say haven’t changed in 1200 years – alcohol can still be drunk on the same premises.

The Sorcerer-King is a rich businessman in a London tower block. He invented computers and controls newspapers. Extra enjoyment, for me, came from the fact that this book was published in 1988, when computer languages were FORTRAN and BASIC and radiophones in cars were a rich man’s toy.

There are wizards and elemental spirits that get drunk on electricity. There is a wolf who was transformed into a man so long ago, that when he returns to wolf shape, he cannot remember how to attack. And there is a BBC film maker obsessed with a conspiracy involving the Milk Marketing Board.

Mix all this together in a language that twists and turns, that caused me to laugh out loud. Not too loud, I hope. I read most of it on a coach to London and back. Other passengers must have wondered what was so funny about my family history research. I wanted to read out some of the cleverest lines. Instead I will mention some here:

The Sorcerer-King is in his office, feeling bored, so he gets out his sword: “With a grunt, he swung the sword round his head and brought it down accurately and with tremendous force on a dark green filing-cabinet, cleaving it from A to J.”

The wolf/business man is on his way to Scotland, to find out what is happening. “In the age of the supersonic airliner, a man can have breakfast in London and lunch in New York (if his digestion can stand it); but to get from Manchester to the north coast of Scotland between the waxing and the waning of the moon still requires not only dedication and cunning but also a modicum of good luck, just as it did in the Dark Ages.”

It is not just the evil characters (see last post) that provide the fun, it is also the Vikings. They all have their own characters, their own jokes; their disappointments when they discover the saga telling of their famous deeds has not survived the years, or has been twisted out of shape – like the Sutton Hoo helmet which they explain to the British Museum guide has been wrongly recreated.

In charge is King Hrolf, who experiences all the hidden doubts and loneliness of a leader. Like them all, he must fight or die and go to spend eternity in Valhalla, although apparently that is not what it was. “Nice enough place, I suppose, except that the food all comes out of a microwave these days and the wish-maidens are definitely past their prime. A bit like one of those run-down gentlemen’s clubs in Pall Mall, if you ask me.

They would have got nowhere, though, without Hildy. She joins the Vikings, driving them about in a variety of vehicles, selling Viking rings to dealers for cash, buying multiple servings of fish & chips to feed the King and his warriors and of course the M&S suit to disguise them. She does so well that the king give her a Name – Vel-Hilda. “The Nose word vel is short and means “well”. The same may be said of you.” A piece of wordplay worthy of the Vikings (or Anglo-Saxons).

Did I learn anything from this book? Something about building memorable characters and the use of the right word to define time and place. Also I will read more books by Tom Holt – why hadn’t come across him before?

I like to use a little humour in my writing, but I’m not sure I could manage something so accomplished – though it would be fun trying.

Writing update: 9,356 words in a week. Although not necessarily in the week in question. I was stopped in my tracks by the trip to the National Archives in London and distracted by a (possible) ancestor who left an estate worth one thousand pounds and upwards – in 1666!

Must go now – my publisher has sent the final proofs for the complete cover of Bright Sword and I must go and drool over it.

Weekend in Wessex – Part 2

I had been looking forward to the Chalke Valley History Festival for a long time. I had been following the lead up to the event on Twitter and noticed a comment that it was “Glastonbury for Historians” – I didn’t realise they were talking about the mud!

I already knew before we left home that Wellingtons would be needed. However there was not room in the car for them, but we had our walking boots. They would have to do.

We set off  from Shaftesbury on Sunday morning. The forecast was cloudy, but rain was not expected. We followed the signposts from the main road. We drove on, and on, down narrow country roads. We seemed to be driving in circles. Finally we reached the back of a queue of cars – nearly there.

End of the queue

End of the queue

It must have been getting on for an hour before we reached the entrance and discovered why the progress was so slow. The car park was a muddy field. Cars drove up the hill on a road of boards. At the top, marshals directed each car individually to a parking spot – a mad dash through the mud. I imagine they still wake in the night shouting “Keep going! Second gear!” Tractors were available for those who couldn’t make it.

Next came a logistics problem. Sitting in front of car in ordinary footwear. Walking boots in boot. In between, thick mud. Another pair of shoes to clean later.

After a muddy walk to the entrance we finally arrived. More mud. After locating the loos (plenty of them and no queues), we headed uphill to the Living History area. There was less mud here and we talked to Celts about the usefulness of lime for sun protection and their everlasting cauldron. We found out about  from Vikings about making chain mail and how often Anglo-Saxons washed. We heard from a Roman doctor about trepanning and a falconer about hunting with hawks. We watched  fights by Saxons and another between medieval knights. We saw men and women from different eras mingling and unusual juxtapositions.

Multi Era Team meeting. Romans telling everyone else what to do.

Multi Era Team Meeting. Romans telling everyone else what to do.



and Romans.

…and Romans.

Viking Ship with a rather superfluous sign.

Viking Ship with a rather superfluous sign.

Viking Warrior - not an Anglo-Saxon. How do you tell the difference?

Viking Warrior – not an Anglo-Saxon. How do you tell the difference?

Q. How do you keep the gun deck of HMS Temeraire clean? A. Leave your boots outside.

Q. How do you keep the gun deck of HMS Temeraire clean? A. Leave your boots outside.

Famous Historian holds court in muddy field.

Famous Historian holds court in muddy field.



By now we were getting tired and hungry. We found a cafe, but it was difficult to sit at a picnic table without getting mud all over the seat – the cakes were nice though.

We visited the book shop – another disconcerting experience. You appear to be browsing in an ordinary Waterstones, but the floor is covered in mud.

I was starting to get fed up. It was difficult to wander round some of the damper areas. You had to look where you were going, then stop to look around. Spend too much time in one place and it was difficult to move on. If we hadn’t booked for a late talk, we might have left – that and the thought of the long walk back to the car.


Saxon Settlement

Saxon Settlement

It was while we were searching for drier ground that we found the Anglo-Saxon Settlement. I had been looking for it, but it was hidden away in some trees.

This was run by The Ancient Technology Centre

We watched a smith working to make iron on a small fire and children having a go at turning wood.

We were taught (unsuccessfully) to make bird calls and I had a lesson in spinning wool using only a twig.

Smelting Iron

Smelting Iron

Bodging a chair leg

Bodging a chair leg

I become a spinster - How to spin wool

I become a spinster – How to spin wool

Clouds - can you spot the plane?

Clouds – can you spot the plane?

The sun had come out and things were starting to dry out a bit.

We heard that there was a display of weapons through the ages before the Saxon v Viking battle, so we made our way over to watch that.

Of course, throughout the day, heads turned to the sky to watch old planes pass over. The commentaries and announcements in general were very clear and easy to hear.

The demonstration of weapons through the ages was fascinating, from the earliest spears and bows, to “black powder” muskets and rifles. Larger weapons; a Roman trebuchet and ballista, cannon and field guns. The display finished with a Napoleonic battle between France and English, although the French refused to die.


The archers show off their bows while redcoats wait their turn.

The archers show off their bows while redcoats wait their turn.

Roman Balista. Efficient but takes a long time to load.

Roman Ballista. Efficient but takes a long time to load.

Viking arrive in time to finish off the French.

The Saxons  arrive in time to finish off the French.

At last it was time for the Battle of Ethandun. Just when we needed it the commentary was intermittent and difficult to hear, but I managed to identify who was who – the Saxons had the blue flag. There was a bit of discussion and the armies lined up and then attacked. After some fighting, they separated and there was more parlaying. King Alfred and his Saxons eventually defeated Guthrum and his Viking Army. They ran away, back to their ships (presumably waiting over the hill!)

The Anglo-Saxon Shield Wall.

The Anglo-Saxon Shield Wall.

The Vikings wait on the hill.

The Vikings wait on the hill.

The Battle of Athendun

The Battle of Ethandun.

The beaten Vikings run away

The beaten Vikings run away.



The dead were re-animated and there were other fights  – a “Circle” – a knockout fight with one winner. It turns out that there are rules in these re-enactment encounters. You don’t get the full experience of a proper Anglo-Saxon battle, they aren’t actually trying to kill each other, after all. But it is the closest I will get and it’s quite scary when they charge you head on – I regretted having wormed my way to the front of the crowd! See the video here.

When the battle was over, we went and found an ice cream. While waiting at the van, the tanks nearby started up and moved away. Later we could hear their battle from our place in the queue for our booked talk.

At last, somewhere to sit down.

The talk by Tom Holland on Athelstan was interesting. He told us about the coins he has acquired that tell the story of how Athelstan became King of all England. English history does not start in 1066, but over a hundred years earlier with King Athelstan.

Tom has written a biography of Athelstan, published just before the Festival. I intended to buy a copy and get it signed, but by the time I reached the bookshop, I couldn’t get in the door. Time to leave.

The sun had dried some of the mud. It was surprising it cleared so quickly, but with the underlying chalk it had not been thick, just wet and slippy.

So, had I enjoyed my day at Chalke Valley History Festival? By the end of the day, yes. I might have enjoyed it more without the mud, but at least it didn’t rain as well – in fact I got sunburned!

I learned a lot, took loads of photographs to inspire my writing and gained an understanding of life in the past – how on earth did they manage without paved roads?


Boot Selfie

Muddy Boot Selfie