EAnotes

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Two Stories Just Published!

Sunday, July 2nd, 2017

Two of my favourite short stories have just been published by New Myths and See the Elephant magazines, and I’m absolutely delighted.

By Michael Hanselmann – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4352073

New Myths issue 39 carries my story, The Wall at the End of the World, about a Roman officer who is called to the wall that marks the end of the Roman world and there learns just why Emperor Hadrian decided that the empire should advance no further north. Here’s a quick taste of the story:

“The painted people!” The legate shook his head and spat into the fire before reaching for the cup and taking a swallow of the wine I’d brought with me.

“I’ve spent too many years fighting them to spend my off-duty time talking about them.” He looked at the cup appreciatively. “Good Roman wine this. The stuff they make here is vinegar.”

“That’s what I heard. It’s why I took the precaution of bringing a supply.”

The legate snorted with laughter, spraying wine over the woollen tunic he had wrapped around himself. “Maxentius told me you have a whole wagon stuffed full with amphorae.”

“The previous tribune brought an amphora of British wine back to Rome. I tried some when I met him to talk about the posting.

The legate stared into the cup. “What did he tell you of me?”

“He said to bring you some decent wine.”

And you can read the rest of the story here.

See the Elephant, issue 3, Slipping Through the Cracks, carries my story, Spellman Mathers’ Travelling Show & Zoo of Ordinary Creatures, which treats of boggarts, fairies and the thin places between worlds through which the unwary and the unfortunate might slip. It’s available through Amazon in Kindle and paper formats and you can find it here. This is the beginning of the story, where we meet one of my favourite ever characters, Spellman Mathers, the master of the strangest travelling show you will ever see:

Spellman Mathers’ Travelling Show & Zoo of Ordinary Creatures was shut up for the night. Tasks completed, Spellman kicked back a chair, lit a smoke and, hands behind his head, stared up at the sky. He breathed out, wreathing the stars with smoke, then, holding the cigarette between thumb and forefinger while inspecting its glowing core, he said, “I was like you once, kid.”

In his hiding place, in the deep dark beneath the bales of animal feed, Sadhu, his skin as brown as a nut and his eyes black as the sky, all but cried out. He couldn’t have seen him, couldn’t have. In the hiding place, dark and deep, he was invisible so long as he did not move and made no sound.

“I had no home, no folks, and I snuck into the circus one night and when the circus left town, I went right along with it.” Apparently satisfied with the cigarette, Spellman drew on it again, then breathed the smoke out, and it billowed and writhed until it became a little smoke boy, hiding behind a cage while peeping out fearfully at a frightening world.

“But that was back then, when I were little, and the world’s moved on. The circus ain’t the right place for a youngster to be growing up no more.”

 

Adventures in Bookland: Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem

Monday, April 17th, 2017


Among writers of historical fiction, Eagle in the Snow has achieved semi-legendary status. It was first published in 1970 and, largely through recommendation, has remained in print ever since (no small feat in itself when the author, Wallace Breem, died in 1990).

It’s the subtlety and mood of the book that gives it its power and creates its status. It’s the story of the dying of things: empires, men, armies, a civilisation. It’s the story of a man born out of time, fighting against the dying of the light. It’s a story of the end of Rome suffused with the nostalgia for fallen things that is a legacy of the northern tribes that defeated the Empire and replaced it on this island. That’s the unspoken, because never acknowledged, paradox at the heart of this book. While there were elements of nostalgia for a lost golden age in Roman civilisation, the twilight mood of Eagle in the Snow is a product of a people and a writer whose civilisation rests upon three supports: the Classical tradition of Rome and Greece, the Judeo-Christian and the foreshadowing of ultimate loss that results from the Ragnarok of the Anglo-Saxons. So this is a book of the defeat of a civilisation that is made into the work of art that it is by the worldview of the civilisations that defeated and supplanted it.

Author Interview: Matthew Harffy

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

This is the first author interview I’ve done on my blog and who better to begin with than fellow Darkling, Matthew Harffy (and it was Matthew who came up with ‘Darkling’ in the first place). Matthew’s novels are also set in 7th-century Northumbria. His hero, Beobrand,  fights for and against the historical figures of the time, the same kings who feature in my novels. But Beobrand is the early-medieval Sharpe and Matthew shares Bernard Cornwell’s ability to tell fast-paced, thrilling stories set in and around the events of the time.

Matthew Harffy

Matthew Harffy

We both write about 7th-century Northumbria. What decided you to write about this period?

I’ve always loved the area since living there as a child. We moved to Northumberland when I was about eight or nine years old and we lived in a small village on the River Tweed near Berwick-upon-Tweed. I remember the wide river, the rugged coastline and the amazing sight of the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle perched on its clifftop overlooking the slate grey North Sea. I was born in Sussex and the coastline was so different. I was used to shallow shingle and sand beaches, where in the summer I could wade out until the water reached my neck. In Northumberland there was rough freezing water and so many seabirds: gulls, gannets, guillemots and puffins. And it was even common to see the bobbing heads of seals in the dark sea water. This was a windswept, wild land, teeming with nature and with the evidence of history all around in the form of ruins and old buildings. Castles, churches Hadrian’s Wall, everywhere there were signs of the past.

It was years later, in 2001 that I watched a documentary on television about the archaeology of Bamburgh Castle. I discovered that the castle had been the seat of great kings of the Northumbrian kingdom called Bernicia and that Northumbria had been the most powerful kingdom in Britain for centuries. Something sparked inside me that night and I could see in my mind’s eye a young man arriving on the beach beneath Bamburgh Castle, helping to pull the longship on to the sand. I was alone in the house, so I went upstairs to the desktop and started to write. I had no idea I would write a novel then, but over the coming months and years the story kept speaking to me and would not let me go.

You’ve had an incredibly varied career. Why did you decide to turn to writing?

I’ve always liked the creative process, which is why I was drawn to singing, drawing and painting, and writing. I’ve always written bits and pieces here and there, often starting stories but never finishing them. I always thought the writing was easy, it was the ideas and the plot that were incredibly difficult. And I still feel that way now, after having written four books. Once I know where the story is going, putting the words on paper is not that difficult. Coming up with the plot is.

After seeing the documentary and starting to write, I don’t think I had a real choice but to complete the novel. I suppose I had always hoped I would be successful, but to be perfectly honest I never really expected to sell any books or even to complete the story. I think the things that link all the creative processes for me is that I like to entertain, whether it is singing in a rock band, or telling jokes to friends in the pub, or writing a series of historical fiction, the aim has always been to entertain.

Speaking of your varied career, which of your previous jobs was your favourite and why?

Without a doubt I would love to be a singer. I love the immediacy of performance, and the joy of letting the music take control. Performing music to an audience provides instant entertainment. It is in many ways the antithesis of writing. In the same way as with writing, you need to prepare in advance with lots of rehearsals, but when you perform after a three-minute song you hear the applause and you know you’ve done a good job. When writing, you spend a year on your own slogging away, to then hand over the book to other people to wait for another few weeks for them to read it and to let you know whether it was a good job or not. It is quite the opposite of immediate, and anyone who knows me is, I think, surprised that I can put up with the stress of waiting for things to happen.

What was your reaction when you learned there was another bloke also writing about the kings of Northumbria?

I had just got an agent for The Serpent Sword, which seemed like the biggest milestone in a writer’s career, at least that is what all the blogs and articles would have you believe. My agent, Robin Wade, was at The London Book Fair presenting my book and trying to sell it so, for the first time ever, I took an interest in the London Book Fair, checking its website each day and looking for updates on Twitter. So it was with dismay that I saw one Edoardo Albert’s Northumbrian Thrones series announced at the same London Book Fair, with a great big poster giving the title of the first in the trilogy, Edwin.

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To start with I was horrified. I knew there were other people writing in the same period as me, On Twitter, I had been following Nicola Griffith, who wrote the wonderful Hild. But her book seemed to be focusing on other aspects of the time. However, The Serpent Sword started with the main character, Beobrand, meeting King Edwin. And from the title of your series I knew instantly that the trilogy would be about Edwin, then Oswald, then Oswiu, all of whom were set to appear in my own novels. I said a few choice words at your expense, for a while believing, quite stupidly, that you having found a publisher would limit my chances.

After some reflection, I decided that actually the reverse was true. If you could find a publisher, then there must be an appetite in the market for books set in this period. Judging from the Nicola Griffith’s success with Hild, and the fact that you and I are still selling books, I think I was right.

Your writing career path has been the opposite of mine. You first pitched for and found an agent, then independently published the first two volumes of your Bernicia Chronicles, before deciding to go with a mainstream publisher, Aria Fiction, which is now busy republishing your books. Can you tell us why you did things this way round, why you went the indie route and why you have now switched to a mainstream publisher?

I went the route of finding an agent because everything I had read, and I had read a lot about it, led me to believe that you needed an agent to be traditionally published. I know now that is not strictly true, as you yourself have proven. However, it is still the easiest, and most tried and tested route into the big mainstream publishers. Naively I thought that once I got an agent the rest would be easy. I would get a six-figure advance, the book would be published to great acclaim, I would become an instant success, then I would retire to an island of my choice in the Caribbean. In reality, things didn’t work out quite that way! My agent asked me to write the sequel, The Cross and the Curse, while he went about selling The Serpent Sword. So for several months I was busy writing, but every few weeks another rejection letter would arrive until all of the publishers Robin had approached had said no.

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I was then left in a difficult position. I had two books finished but no publisher. My agent continued trying to sell the series, but I made a decision not to just sit waiting any longer. In my day job I work in a team of technical writers, so I have the skills and knowledge to be able to produce a quality product in terms of the formatting, cover design, and so on. This allowed me to do all the work myself to release the book in both electronic book form and as a Print On Demand paperback. I did this for The Serpent Sword back in April 2015, and it sold better than I had expected. More rejections came in for The Cross and the Curse so my path seemed set, I would continue to self-publish.

I released The Cross and the Curse in January 2016 and shortly after Robin finally got a bite from a new publisher, Aria, an imprint of the successful independent publisher Head of Zeus. The decision to go with Aria was not easy, I was doing well as a self-published writer and things only seemed to be getting better. I was not sure what Aria could offer me that I couldn’t provide myself. However, after a lot of soul searching and discussion with Robin, and anyone else who would give me time to waffle on about the pros and cons of different publishing deals, I decided that if I didn’t take this opportunity, I would always ask myself what could have been. The main reason I chose to go with Aria in the end was that I thought they would be able to reach a wider audience than I would be able to do alone. It’s only been a few months since the re-publication of the first two books, but I can now say I think I made the right decision. Sales have been excellent and having a team of talented professionals working to not only promote my work, but also to polish what I’ve already done, has been, and is still proving to be, a wonderful and rewarding experience.

Do you think you will stay in mainstream publishing?

Who knows what the future will bring? I’m actually going through the process of thinking about this right now. I have completed my first contract with Aria and I need to decide with them and my agent what the future has in store. I definitely would not shy away from self-publishing again in future. The level of control, the agility, the ability to react quickly to any issue, and of course, a larger proportion of royalties per book sold, are all great incentives. However, as I said before, it’s great to not have to take on all the marketing, and all the publicity, and all of the editing, alone. I think it is very possible that I will continue with a mainstream publisher, but I can see the possibility of publishing some works myself in the future too, making me what is termed a hybrid author.

How important has your agent been for you (speaking as a writer who has publishers but no agent for fiction, I’m particularly interested in knowing the answer to this).

I think each agent works differently and you need to find the agent that suits how you wish to work. Robin is quite hands-off, we talk regularly but he doesn’t give me detailed notes on each chapter as I write, which I believe some agents do. Perhaps if I asked him to, he would, but I don’t think either of us feel the need to be attached at the hip in that way. One of the best things about having an agent is knowing that somebody in the industry believes in you. It is so easy, especially when faced with rejection upon rejection, to think that your work is terrible and that it is not worth pursuing. Having somebody who has read hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and has best-selling authors on their list recognise the quality of your work does wonders for your morale. Also of course Robin has worked tirelessly to try to find a publisher. He is able to speak to editors in big publishing houses directly in a way that I would never be able to. Without an agent I would not have the publishing deal with Aria that I have. Lastly, Robin knows the industry and can answer questions that I have, clarifying contractual issues, and generally providing me with a knowledgeable ally as I navigate through the often-confusing publishing industry.

I and, I’m sure, many other writers look with awe at the number of reviews you have received on Amazon. How on earth have you managed this?

Well the obvious quip is that I have sold lots of books!

But really there is no trick here. All I do is ask people to leave a review when they have read the book. I put this request in the acknowledgements of every book, and if anybody contacts me on social media to say they have enjoyed a book, or if they sent me an e-mail commenting on one of my books, I always respond with a request for them to leave a short review on Amazon or Goodreads, or their online retailer of choice. It really is as simple as that! Oh, and selling shed loads of books helps too, of course!

Of the three books you have written so far, do you have a favourite?

Well that is a pretty impossible question to answer!

I have actually now written four novels in the Bernicia Chronicles and a novella too. Blood and Blade is out in December 2016, Kin of Cain, the novella, is out in April 2017, and Killer of Kings, book four in the series, is out in June 2017.

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People who have read all of the books say that my writing has improved with each one. I myself never feel that way, instead I often feel that each book is worse than the one before! Hopefully they are right and I am wrong! I like each book for different reasons, but I think I would have to say The Cross and the Curse is my favourite so far. I’d love to hear from readers what they think once they’ve read them all!

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Do you intend to keep writing about Beobrand or will you branch into other areas and times?

There are definitely more stories of Beobrand to tell. I am not sure how many Bernicia Chronicles there will be, but I have story ideas already for another four or five at least. Having said that I would love to tell tales based in other time periods. I have written the opening paragraphs of a Western, a genre I have always loved but which I am told is not marketable. And I already have the outline for a plot set a couple of hundred years later after Beobrand’s story.

Time will tell which stories get told and in what order.

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Now, some quickfire questions.

This is tough and in a few instances, I’m sure I would give a different answer on a different day. I took this in the spirit of quick-fire and wrote the first answer that came to mind.

Favourite word

Persiflage [I had to look this up. It means ‘Light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter’.]

Favourite author

David Gemmell

Favourite book

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Favourite film

Blade Runner

Favourite song

Somebody to Love by Queen

Writing – silence or music?

Either, but music with no words.

Favourite place

Dunstanburgh Castle

Favourite historical figure

Sir Richard Francis Burton – my all-time hero. I’d love to write about him one day!

Favourite food

A great cheeseburger

Favourite drink

A good real ale

Thank you, Matthew. It was a great pleasure to interview Matthew and to get to know a little more about him. I’ve read The Serpent Sword and Blood and Blade and highly recommend them (and I’m going to read The Cross and the Curse as soon as I’ve finished a couple of books I’ve promised to review). Many of the characters who appear in my books, such as Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, also feature in Matthew’s books; it’s fascinating to read his take on these historical figures.

To find out more about him, visit him at his website or blog, or connect with him online. Details below.

Matthew Harffy is the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of novels set in seventh century Britain. The first of the series, The Serpent Sword, was published by Aria/Head of Zeus on 1st June 2016. The sequel, The Cross and The Curse was released on 1st August 2016. Book three, Blood and Blade, is due for publication in December 2016.

The Serpent Sword and The Cross and the Curse are available on AmazonKoboGoogle Play, and all good online bookstores.

Blood and Blade, Killer of Kings and Kin of Cain are all available for pre-order on Amazon and all good online bookstores.

Website: www.matthewharffy.com

Twitter: @MatthewHarffy

Facebook: MatthewHarffyAuthor

Oswiu: What Writers Think – no.6 in a short series

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016
Jill Dalladay

Jill Dalladay

Jill Dalladay, classicist, historian and Latinist, wrote The Abbess of Whitby, an account of the life of Hild, the seventh-century Anglian noblewoman who oversaw the joint monastery at Whitby during some of the most crucial years of the Church in England. It’s a wonderful book, highlighting an aspect of the history of Northumbria that I simply didn’t have the space or time to do more than touch upon in Oswiu: King of Kings.

But, working in the same era as I do and with such impressive credentials to her name, I was eager, although a little nervous, to know what Jill thought of Oswiu. I’m delighted to say that she liked it. Here’s what she had to say:

‘It seems to me we live in times when all is changing, and what our fathers took as solid and secure, we can no longer trust,’ says the hero of Oswiu, King of Kings, teased by the ambiguity and interplay between the old one-eyed Raven-God, Woden, and the new Christ. Full of incident and adventure, this third book in Edoardo Albert’s masterly Northumbrian trilogy highlights the edgy family dynamics of rival dynasties in the turbulent seventh century world of gold and glory. Albert’s writing sweeps us along through nervous raiding parties, sweaty rides over parched hills peopled by wraiths, the muscle-straining tension of the warriors’ shield-wall, and the comfort of the smoky mead hall with fire sprites dancing in the logs. A satisfying climax to this mammoth enterprise.

Oswiu: What Writers Think – no.5 in a short series

Monday, October 24th, 2016
Matthew Harffy

Matthew Harffy

See this fellow? If you think he looks like he wouldn’t be out of place in the 7th century, you’d be right. Back when I was finishing off Edwin: High King of Britain and congratulating myself in having this extraordinary period in British history all to myself, I discovered that there was another writer working on a book set during the reign of King Edwin. After employing a few old English words, I set to stalking him online and discovered to my horror that, yes, he really was writing in my period and that, even worse, he was really good.

When Matthew found out about me – you can read how this happened in his interview with me here – there was much tentative circling, rather like two wary warriors, not quite sure of the other’s intention. But we soon realised that we would do better standing shoulder to shoulder than facing each other, a realisation bolstered by the fact that we could each admire the other’s work wholeheartedly while realising, with some relief, that we were doing quite different things with our takes on the 7th century.

Since Matthew writes about the same period I do, he clearly knows it backward. So I was delighted when he said he’d read an advance copy of Oswiu: King of Kings. I was even more pleased with what he said about it:

“In Oswiu: King of Kings, Edoardo Albert brings to vivid life the battle for the land and souls of the British people in the seventh century.  Albert tells an epic tale of kings and queens, omens and shieldwalls, where the future of a people was decided as much through the guile of its priests as the strength of its warlords. He deftly weaves the threads of a memorable cast of characters into the weft and warp of a vibrant tapestry of war, mystery and intrigue. Yet the true strength of Oswiu: King of Kings, is in the depiction of the effects of conflict on the men and women of the Dark Ages. As Albert reminds us there is much more to conquest than the ringing clash of swords.”

And if you don’t rush out and buy Oswiu now, I’ll get Matthew to send his hero, Beobrand round to have a word with you – and you really don’t want to get Beobrand annoyed!

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Oswiu: What Writers Think – no.4 in a short series

Sunday, October 16th, 2016
Andrew Norriss

Andrew Norriss

Some unusual acquaintances are made online. In my case, few have been more unexpected but more welcome than my getting to know Andrew and Jane Norriss online. The name might not immediately mean anything but anyone watching TV in the 1990s will know Andrew from The Brittas Empire. Andrew wrote the first five series.

brittasempire001bBut then, with one of the more unexpected career swerves, he decided to throw in TV writing in exchange for the considerably less lucrative vocation of writing books for children. Mind, he still couldn’t completely escape the octopus clasp of television, for the producers took one read of his book Aquila and immediately saw what anyone reading it must see: that this is one of the most perfectly crafted stories ever written. And they promptly slapped it on television.

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I must admit that the Aquila TV series was really rather wonderful. But, of course, past performance is not an indicator of future returns and, given the unlikely collision of talents that go into making a good TV programme, it’s unlikely that the lightning of success would strike again. Besides, working with TV people is like supping with the devil: something best done with a very long spoon.

So, thankfully, Andrew’s been able to escape the dead grasp of television, and he’s been busy writing further books for children – most of which I’ve read and reviewed, here (The Unluckiest Boy in the World) and here (The Portal)  and here (The Touchstone). His latest, Jessica’s Ghost, I fear lays him open to the further blandishments of TV land so get in there and read it before some producer ruins it.

Given my untrammeled enthusiasm and admiration for Andrew’s work, imagine how pleased I was to find out that he liked my work too. He’s actually read Edwin: High King of Britain and Oswald: Return of the King. This time, though, putting my marketing cap on, I thought I’d get him to read a pre-publication copy of Oswiu: King of Kings in the hope that his recommendation might open up the 8-12 junior reader market to me. Well, not really. Oswiu is not really suitable for 8 year olds (although I don’t think there’s anything in it that would be unsuitable for a 12 year old moving on to trying adult books for the first time). But, really,  I just wanted Andrew to read it. And he did, and here’s what he had to say about it.

Edoardo Albert conjures up an extraordinarily vivid and authentic picture of life in 7th Century Britain that is hugely enjoyable. This is fabulous story-telling, with the themes of greed, ambition, nobility and the power of religion woven together with consummate skill. This is the real Game of Thrones – a fabulous story, beautifully told, that turns out to be based on fact!

You can imagine just how pleased I am with this. Andrew is probably the most talented writer I know and to have such an endorsement is praise indeed. You hear that low pitched hum in the background? That’s the sound of a writer, purring.

Oswiu: What Writers Think – no.3 in a short series

Monday, October 3rd, 2016
James Aicheson

James Aitcheson

James Aitcheson does, supremely well, what I hope to do in my own books: employ a profound knowledge of the history of the time he is writing about to make the actions of the men and women of the time understandable to modern readers. His Sworn Sword trilogy looks at the aftermath of 1066, and how William really conquered England, while his latest book, The Harrowing, represents a huge departure from the somewhat hackneyed norms of historical fiction writing, giving a determinedly downbeat and realistic portrayal of the impact of the Conquest on ordinary people.  He’s also an excellent speaker – my boys were rapt when he spoke at the Battle of Hastings re-enactment last year and James will be there again this year. If you’re going, make sure you look out for him.

This is James with the boys:

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And with me:

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So I was delighted when James agreed to read Oswiu: King of Kings before publication – and even more pleased by what he thought of it. Here’s what he said:

In Oswiu, the concluding instalment in his Northumbrian Thrones trilogy, Edoardo Albert takes readers back to seventh-century England: a shadowy and turbulent era when Britons and Anglo-Saxons, heathens and Christians, contested for political and spiritual supremacy.

Albert writes with great passion; his love for this period of history shines through at every stage. His research is worn lightly, and yet his depiction of early medieval life has a strong ring of truth. In particular the post-Roman landscape of northern England, littered with roads, walls and other crumbling relics of the imperial past, is vividly described: a constant reminder that power is transitory and that even the mightiest empires must fall.

As regards the eponymous Oswiu, king of Bernicia, Albert paints a credible picture of a man struggling with the many burdens of rulership: weighed down by expectations of what a good king should be; plagued by threats to his power both at home and abroad; and overshadowed (as he has often been in history) by his celebrated elder brother and predecessor, Oswald.

Dynastic rivalries, shifting allegiances and pagan mysticism combine in this atmospheric novel, evoking a volatile world in which life is uncertain, authority and respect are hard-won, honour is all-important, and divine forces hold sway.

There. I couldn’t have asked for better. Thank you, James and remember, if you’re going to see the 950th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings on 15 and 16 October, look for James in the book tent.

Write More In Less Time

Monday, September 26th, 2016

Ever wanted to know how to write more in less time?

Here’s how: disconnect from the internet and switch off the mobile.

There you go.

‘But, but, it’s research,’ I hear you say. No. No, it’s not, it’s timewasting. If you really do have to look something up, find it in a book.

‘What about promotion and marketing?’ Yes, yes, I know. Every writer nowadays has to be a combination of Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian, and flaunt themselves online. Set aside a defined time to do this. If you try to do it during writing time, you won’t have any writing to promote.

So there’s your answer. Now, switch me off and do it.

 

Oswiu: What Writers Think – no.2 in a short series

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

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Take a look at this man. Most writers have the sort of face that fits on radio: Justin Hill looks like the sort of fellow you wouldn’t want to see standing opposite you in the enemy shieldwall. Only, judging by the photo, it looks like he’d favour the naked beserker style of fighting!  So, you’d listen to what he tells you about good books to read about the Dark Ages. Particularly when he’s written one of the best of them: Shieldwall, about the best evocation of late Anglo-Saxon England I’ve read (the sequel, Viking Fire, has just come out and I’m on it big time). But just to show he’s not all trapezius and deltoid, he also weaves tales around Chinese teashops (The Drink and Dream Teahouse) and memoirs around Eritrean coffeeshops (Ciao Asmara); and, a particular delight to me, writes bolter-blasting stories in the 40th millennium too when there is only war (Storm of Damocles).

This is what Justin has to say about Oswiu: King of Kings:

‘The death of the king plunges the north into crisis. A crowning achievement: meticulously researched, a long-overdue insight into our Anglo-Saxon past.’

There you go. Reading that, you’d better order Oswiu: King of Kings. You wouldn’t want to upset Justin, would you?

The Canon of Historical Fiction – what’s in it and what’s not

Friday, July 29th, 2016

What is a canon? Apart from a camera maker, it’s also a cathedral priest, a church law and, for the purposes of this blog, the measure against which we judge what is good and what is not in literature. The canon is the ultimate best-of list, the books that have survived the centuries to speak along the conversation that is human history. But the canon must also show the breadth and possibilities of a literary genre.

So here I’m going to make a stab at defining and starting the canon of historical fiction. First, though, we need to define what we mean by historical fiction. The most obvious answer is that it’s written about people in the past, so we will begin by defining our first criterion: to qualify as historical fiction the work must be set in a time at least one generation before the time of writing.

Secondly, to give equal weight to both parts of its name, it must be a story grounded in historical fact. So while there will be fictional aspects to the story, it should not contradict history. By that criterion, something like Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, which I would otherwise very much like to include, has to be excluded from the canon of historical fiction as Arthur – if he existed – fought very different battles to those depicted in Le Morte.

Following from this, we must also exclude historical fantasy. While it’s true that peoples in the past accepted the supernatural much more readily and therefore, to portray them properly, supernatural and fantastical elements may be introduced into a story, they should not take precedence over history. With that in mind, I think we would have to exclude The Odyssey from the canon, for while it’s quite possible that Odysseus wandered widely in his return from Troy, the mythical elements of the story put it firmly into legend rather than history.

So, with these criteria in mind, what makes up the canon of historical fiction through the centuries. Let’s go!

The Iliad – Homer. The grandaddy of them all. The foundation stone of pretty well all western literature. And, for fans of hard hitting historical fiction, it contains some of the most brutal depictions of battle ever written, and all in dactylic hexameter! My favourite translation is the one by Robert Fagles.

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By my criteria, The Aeneid can’t be included as historical fiction (but it’s certainly still worth reading), nor Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (just as worth reading and considerably more fun).

Moving into the early medieval period, Beowulf is disqualified because of its fantastical elements but  The Song of Roland, despite the somewhat unlikely casualty figures, makes it both as an account of a real battle and as an unparalleled insight into the beginnings of chivalric culture.

Although they’re plays, Shakespeare’s histories are supreme examples of the writer bringing the historical past to life and interpreting it afresh through the ages. Indeed, Shakespeare’s take on the Wars of the Roses has probably influenced our ideas of what happened then more than those of any historian. As he’s recently resurfaced, try Richard III (although a particular favourite is Henry VI part 3).

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But historical fiction as a genre really gets going in the 19th century and the man who set it running was Sir Walter Scott. His Waverley novels introduce characters at the meeting of competing social groups, while Ivanhoe pretty well invents the modern medieval novel.

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Most of the 19th century giants of English literature turned their hands to the historical novel, with examples ranging from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (pretty well my least favourite of his works) to Vanity Fair.

But the greatest 19th-century work of historical fiction must be War and Peace. Tolstoy wrote it some 60 years after Napoleon’s disastrous (for him) invasion of Russia, although in the story Tolstoy is as much concerned with his present as the past.

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Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed also uses the events of the past – Italy in the early 17th century – as part of an examination of pre-unification Italy. It’s one of the great novels of Italian literature.

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Moving to the new world, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper pretty well created the idea of the noble Indian, while tinging it with elegiac wistfulness for a disappearing people.

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Coming into the 20th century, Georgette Heyer pretty well single handedly created the Regency romance novel – she can’t be held responsible for its subsequent mutations! Robert Graves might have regarded I, Claudius and Claudius the God as literary hack work but they show less sign of being forgotten than his poetry, while of Mary Renault’s superb novels about ancient Greece my own favourite is The Mask of Apollo, which shows Plato trying, and failing, to put his political philosophy into practice through his teaching of Dionysius the Younger, ruler of Syracuse.

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There’s a strong strand of historical fiction written for children and, of these, I’d single out Rosemary Sutcliff and her Eagle of the Ninth as one of the best examples – and certainly worthy of a place in the canon.

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While I’ve mainly confined myself to the English-writing world, there is one 20th-century novel from an entirely different cultural milieu that every fan of historical fiction should read: Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Writing as a Japanese Catholic, Endo is both a part of and stands as observer to his culture, a position also endured by the hero of Silence, a Portuguese missionary priest in the 17th century who is forced to abjure his faith in the face of the torture meted out to Christians. Silence is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, so it definitely earns its place in our canon.

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I am no great fan of The Name of the Rose, but as an example of a sub-genre of historical fiction, the historical detective story, it deserves a place in the canon. On the other hand, I admit to being a complete fan boy of George Macdonald Fraser and Patrick O’Brian: I will complete this list of the historical fiction canon with Flashman and the Aubrey/Maturin books.

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Now, it’s your turn. Tell me what else you think should form part of the canon of historical fiction.