Tuesday, 28 January 2020

I now have a Patreon page!

I now have a Patreon page.

For those that don't know what that is, it is a subscription service where fans can become patrons and be rewarded with all manner of exclusive and advance material. It is not for everyone, but if you are a massive fan of Beobrand and his cohort, or have recently discovered Dunston and friends, or just love the early medieval (aka Dark Ages) era and epic tales, then you might find it something of interest.

Become a Patron!

I've only just launched, but will be adding more content frequently.

So far, any tier subscriber has access to the following:
  • The opening pages of FORTRESS OF FURY (Bernicia Chronicles VII), that is not due for publication until June!
  • The opening section of my new work in progress, working title A TIME FOR SWORDS. This is a totally new set of characters and the book is not due to be published until December 2020!
  • The agent submission letter I used to secure agent representation way back in 2014. This is the first of many posts from the vaults of my hard drive, that will show some of the behind the scenes workings of getting books ready for publication and give some insights into the publishing industry.
Soon, I will also be releasing a very special limited signed edition of Wolf of Wessex, and patrons will have first access to the pre-order and a 10% discount.

There will be lots more exciting stuff over the coming weeks and months, so pop on over to my Patreon and see if there is a tier that provides rewards you are interested in.


Monday, 23 December 2019

Christmas in early seventh century Britain

"Come, remove your sodden cloak and take a place on the bench. The fire is warm and there is food and drink a-plenty." The bearded man looks at you askance. "Even one who has travelled so far to be here tonight."

He ushers you towards the long bench where others are seated around the central hearth. The feast is already well underway and the men raise their cups and drinking horns to you as they slide along, making way for you to sit.

"I see from your apparel that you have come a long way to be here in our Lord King Edwin's hall at Gefrin," says the steward as you settle onto the wooden bench. "I note you have no eating knife. I will fetch you one." And with that he is gone, bustling away through the servants and thralls who attend the revellers.

Looking up, you see the rafters of the long hall are wreathed in soot and the smoke from the hearth fogs the air around the beams. Your nostrils are filled with the scent of roasting meat, ale, mead, and the sour stink of dozens of unwashed bodies. The man beside you, a sharp faced brute with a badly set broken nose and a savage-looking scar under his right eye, pushes a wooden cup into your hand. Some of the contents slosh over your fingers and onto the board before you. The man grins. There is a gap between his strong white teeth, and judging from his scarred face you imagine he might have lost the tooth in combat. You suppress a shiver of fear, but he seems friendly enough and the warmth of the hall is welcome after the driving, bitter rain outside.

"Drink!" the gap-toothed man demands.

Nervously, you sniff the liquid in the cup. It smells faintly of a plant. Heather, perhaps. You sip it and it tastes unlike anything you have drunk before. It is not unpleasant and has a slightly floral taste.

"The ale is good, is it not?" the man asks. "It is fresh," he continues, "goodwife Aelswith made it this very morn."

You drink some more, allowing the ale to refresh you, and offering the man a nod. He seems pleased.

"Here is the knife I promised you." The steward has returned and hands you a small scabbarded knife. Its handle is smooth and made from antler. "So, tell me, stranger,” the steward says, “did you travel here with the Christ followers? They have come all the way from Cantware."

He indicates a dark robed, sallow-faced man, sitting at the high table beside the richly dressed man you assume to be the lord of the hall, King Edwin of Northumbria. Before you can answer, the steward continues.

"Now I have nothing against this new religion of the Christ, and my Lord King is wise to invite the learned men from Roma into his lands. But they say that this, the shortest day of the year and the longest night, is the birth of their god, the Christ. I suppose that might be true.” He scratches at his beard for a moment, finds something in the thatch of hair and inspects it. He squeezes whatever it is between his fingernails and flicks it over the laden board and into the fire. “But for me,” he continues, “this night will always be Modraniht, Mother Night, and I will celebrate it as I always have and as my father did and my father's father did before him. See," he waves his hand towards the carcass that was being turned slowly on a spit over the fire by a sweat-streaked youth, "a boar has been sacrificed and its head and blood offered up to the gods, that the coming year will bring us fertility and prosperity. This priest man from the south, with his strangely-shaved head, can preach all he wishes about the birth of a child god, but I think Yule will always be celebrated as we do now. With good food, strong drink, and offering up thanks to our forebears and the gods. For at this, the darkest and coldest time of the year, we must make our own light and merriment and look forward to the turning of the year and the coming of the sun and warmth of summer once more. Then the land will be green and full of life and plenty." He laughs and shrugs ruefully. "Listen to me, I speak as though I were a scop, ready to tell you a tale or sing a song. But that is not my place, I am not a spinner of words. That will come later, after the eating is done. Caedmon the bard will sing then and tell-tales the like of which you have never heard. His voice is like liquid honey poured into the ears. But now I must be away. I see Hrothgar calling for more ale. Where is Odelyna?” He tuts. “I told her to take a fresh jug over there an age ago. If I find her dallying again with young Acennan, I will take a hazel switch to her hide! Enjoy the food, friend." He shakes his head, gives you a friendly pat on the shoulder and hurries away.

One of the servants, a redheaded comely girl with skin as pale as lamb’s wool and eyes the green of a summer orchard, places a trencher of freshly sliced meat onto the board. Unsheathing the small knife, you take your lead from the others sitting around you and skewer a piece of meat. Chewing the succulent flesh, you look about contentedly, allowing the merriment of those gathered in the fug-filled mead hall to wash over you. The dark-garbed priest at the high table catches your gaze and inclines his head, as though he recognises a kindred spirit. You raise your cup to him and drink deeply of the ale that had tasted so foreign only moments before. Now, you savour the brew as you wash down the boar meat.

You look the length of the hall, taking in the throng of revellers, the raucous laughter. The heat from the fire and the redolence of the hearty food is comforting. You lean back, feeling the tension easing from your shoulders and you ponder the steward's words.

Much will change over the centuries, you muse. Until one day, this draughty timber hall is just a distant memory, veiled in an almost forgotten past. In these northern lands, raiders and invaders will come and go, kings will be born, rise to power and then go the way of all things.

And yet there will be a constant through the ages. When the year is at the wane and the longest night is come, then, whether it is known as Yule, Modraniht or Christmas, the people of this island will eat, drink and spend time with their loved ones, looking back at the year behind them and gazing forward to warmer, brighter times ahead.


This article first appeared on Mary Anne Yarde's blog.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

The power of alliance in the Viking Age

This article was first published in Historia, the magazine of the Historical Writers' Association on 13th November 2019.

My latest novel, Wolf of Wessex, is set in the south west of Britain in AD 838. It features many fictional characters, but they are placed within the tapestry of real events, places and people. One such real person is a king I had never heard of before researching the book: Ecgberht, King of Wessex.

Ecgberht (also spelled Egbert, Ecgbert, or Ecgbriht) was the grandfather of King Alfred and the more I read about his life and his reign, the more I wonder whether he might have as much right to the epithet ‘Great’ (as seen in 19th-century documents about him) as his more famous grandson.

Ecgberht didn’t have to deal with a great heathen army, but he did become the Bretwalda (overking of all of the English), break the dominion of Mercia over the south-east and, through alliance and battle, not only expanded the influence of his kingdom but also defended his shores from foreign aggressors.

The very late eighth and early ninth centuries were years of upheaval after a period of relative stability for Britain. The first account of Norsemen landing was on the coast of Wessex in 787.
Over the subsequent decade there followed a series of brutal raids all around the coastline of the British Isles. Infamously, the raiders, known now as Vikings (from the word vikingr, the Old Norse word for people travelling to raid and seek adventure), sacked Christian monasteries such as Lindisfarne in Northumbria and Iona in the Hebrides.

These Christian sites were situated in exposed locations, with access to the sea, and had no armed guards. They also housed many rich artefacts which were ripe for the taking. These Scandinavian pirates were not Christian, so cared nothing for the supposed eternal damnation they might face for defiling the sanctity of monasteries and churches.

And so it was that the Viking Age began. A time where the sleek dragon-prowed ships of the Norsemen were a constant threat to anyone living near the coast or navigable rivers of Britain and northern Europe.

For a time in the early ninth century, the number of attacks seems to have reduced. And, as so often in history, we can see how alliance made a smaller kingdom, in this case Wessex, more protected from external threats, and therefore more prosperous.

For the reduction of attacks on the British coast was thanks in no small part to Frankish ships patrolling the narrow sea of the English Channel. Like so many monarchs in the Anglo-Saxon period, Ecgberht had been exiled in his early life. He spent those years in the court of Charlemagne, the Frankish king and the greatest ruler of the age.

At the Frankish court Ecgberht learnt much about how to be a statesman and how to govern a Christian country. This knowledge would serve him well and the alliance with the powerful Frankish royal family must certainly have aided him when he returned to claim his place as the king of Wessex.

Under Ecgberht, and with Frankish support, Wessex quickly became the most powerful kingdom in Britain. While the Frankish navy kept the southern coast relatively safe from plundering Norsemen, Ecgberht focused on conquest and expansion. In 813 and again in 825 he led campaigns against the ‘West Welsh’, conquering what is now known as Devon and subjugating Cornwall to the status of vassal state.

Soon he had defeated the Mercians, his main rivals for power in Britain, at the Battle of Ellandun (probably Wroughton in Wiltshire) and then swallowed up Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he even took the oath of Eanred, king of the Northumbrians, leading Ecgberht to be called the ruler of all of the English, or the eighth Bretwalda.

But as with all kingdoms, things didn’t run smoothly for long. Mercia, Wessex’s enemy number one, quickly regained independence in 830. And the Vikings posed an increasing threat along the coast of Wessex. This was largely due to a civil war breaking out in Frankia between the sons of Louis the Pious. As the bloody civil war raged, thoughts of protecting the Channel from Norse ships vanished, and the navy was disbanded.

So, with his Continental European allies otherwise engaged and removing their support, Ecgberht found himself having to fend for himself.

In 836, a fleet of thirty-five Danish marauders landed at Carrum (Carhampton). Ecgberht summoned his levies and they attacked the Vikings. But the Danes defeated the men of Wessex and “had the place of slaughter”.

Ecgberht was getting old by this time and the threat of attack by Vikings must have been an ever-present worry for him. Thoughts of expansion were a thing of the past and Ecgberht began to consider securing the succession to his throne for his son Æthelwulf and the defence of his realm from the Vikings. He managed to defeat a concerted assault by a joint force of Danes and West Welsh from Cornwall in 838 at Hingston Down, but as the century went on, the Viking attacks would continue.

Even as the alliance with Frankia weakened, and the Frankish commercial network collapsed, Ecgberht was still striving to strengthen those bonds of friendship once more, as attested by communication with Louis the Pious shortly before Ecgberht’s death.

It seems that Ecgberht of Wessex knew full well that his kingdom was stronger and more powerful when supported by his allies on the continent. Without the Franks’ aid and trade, he could see his influence waning and Wessex’s power dwindling.

It is often said that to understand the present we must learn from the past. Ecgberht understood that alliance with continental Europe made his kingdom more secure. Looking back from the 21st century, such a conclusion appears obvious; but maybe what Ecgberht had come to understand over a thousand years ago is thought to be too distant to be recognised as relevant today.

Wolf of Wessex by Matthew Harffy was published in ebook and print on demand paperback on 14 November, 2019. Hardback and paperback versions will be out in 2020.

Depiction of Ecgberht from the Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings (late 13th-century manuscript): British Library via Wikimedia
Map showing places of interest during Ecgberht’s reign: by Mike Christie via Wikimedia
Portrait of Egbert: National Library of Wales via Wikimedia

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

New book release: Katherine - Tudor Duchess by Tony Riches

Tony Riches, Author of the best-selling Tudor Trilogy, has a new book out!

Katherine - Tudor Duchess

Attractive, wealthy and influential, Katherine Willoughby is one of the most unusual ladies of the Tudor court. A favourite of King Henry VIII, Katherine knows all his six wives, his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, and his son Edward.

When her father dies, Katherine becomes the ward of Tudor knight, Sir Charles Brandon. Her Spanish mother, Maria de Salinas, is Queen Catherine of Aragon’s lady in waiting, so it is a challenging time for them when King Henry marries the enigmatic Anne Boleyn.

Following Anne’s dramatic downfall, Katherine marries Charles Brandon, and becomes Duchess of Suffolk at the age of fourteen. After the short reign of young Catherine Howard, and the death of Jane Seymour, Katherine and Brandon are chosen to welcome Anna of Cleves as she arrives in England.

When the royal marriage is annulled, Katherine’s good friend, Catherine Parr becomes the king’s sixth wife, and they work to promote religious reform. Katherine’s young sons are tutored with the future king, Prince Edward, and become his friends, but when Edward dies his Catholic sister Mary is crowned queen. Katherine’s Protestant faith puts her family in great danger - from which there seems no escape.

Katherine’s remarkable true story continues the epic tale of the rise of the Tudors, which began with the best-selling Tudor trilogy and concludes with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Available in eBook and paperback from Amazon UK and Amazon US

(Audiobook edition coming in 2020)

Author Bio

Tony Riches is a full-time UK author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. Tony’s other published historical fiction novels include: Owen – Book One Of The Tudor Trilogy, Jasper – Book Two Of The Tudor Trilogy, Henry – Book Three Of The Tudor Trilogy, Mary – Tudor Princess and Brandon – Tudor Knight.

For more information about Tony’s books please visit his website tonyriches.com and his blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

REVIEW: Outside the Gates of Eden by Lewis Shiner

Outside the Gates of EdenOutside the Gates of Eden by Lewis Shiner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Outside the Gates of Eden is an epic, sprawling double gatefold concept album of a novel. It is a poignant and powerful swansong to the end of the twentieth century, to the demise of wide-eyed, often drug-fuelled innocence of the Summer of Love and Woodstock; an elegy to ideals and dreams lost. But through it all, like a pounding John Bonham stomp groove, the enduring power of music and love to redeem us all flows through the heart of the story.

Filled with missed opportunities and wasted time, Outside the Gates of Eden is often bleak, frequently ebullient, but always eminently readable. Shiner takes his endearing cast of characters from students wanting to change the world to retirees who, looking back with regrets at their perception of how little they have achieved, do their best to hand over some hope for the future to the next generation.

Lewis Shiner writes with incredible precision and feeling. With seeming effortlessness he captures the ecstatic joy of live performance, and the rush that comes when music and words slot together perfectly to produce something magical in song writing and recording. His passion for music oozes from every page, but above that, his compassion for the characters drives the narrative and makes the book difficult to put down.

This is one of those rare books that fills me with awe and envy in equal measure. I know I could never have written it, but still I wish I had. I loved it!

View all my reviews

Saturday, 7 September 2019

GUEST POST: Capturing Time and Place in a Sentence by Dean Hamilton

Way back in 2016 I read a novella by Dean Hamilton called Black Dog. It featured a swashbuckling tough character called Kit Tyburn and was a richly detailed portrayal of Elizabethan London.

A few days ago I started listening to the audio book of the first novel about the same character, THE JESUIT LETTER, and I have again been impressed with Hamilton's depth of historical knowledge and how he paints a realistic picture of 16th century England.

The creation of a believable setting is one of the key elements in writing convincing historical fiction, so I asked Dean to write a guest post explaining how he goes about casting the spell of time travel over his readers. I think the piece he wrote will interest readers and writers alike.

Capturing Time and Place in a Sentence

by Dean Hamilton

One of the challenges in writing historical fiction, is the effort to capture a setting.  How do you write believably about an era that is long vanished in time? How do you make that setting come alive, in a realistic and accurate way? How does that setting drive the story, characters actions and choices, and how do they interact with that world?

THIEVES’ CASTLE, my new book, is set in the Elizabethan era in 1576 in London. Most fiction embedded in the Elizabethan era tends to be tales of Court intrigue, set amidst the silken splendor of palaces.  Mine tends to hang about in ale-soaked taverns, muddy streets and fetid back-alleys where cold-steel by lantern light offers redemption or grim death by turns…

In THIEVES’ CASTLE, Kit Tyburn, ex-soldier turned play-actor and part-time intelligencer for the Queen’s spymaster Francis Walsingham, is back in London and adrift. Penniless, cut loose from both his playing troupe and his mercurial employer, Tyburn is hired to track down a missing gold-seller who has vanished, along with the monies needed for the completion of London’s first permanent theatre.

But London’s dark and fetid back-alleys hide deadly secrets, as Tyburn uncovers a more treacherous game – a war between two noble houses that pulls him into a murderous conflict on the streets, a deadly Spanish conspiracy and a twisted thief-lord chasing her vengeance.

The defining parameters for the setting of THIEVES’ CASTLE were driven by two ideas:
  1. Take Elizabethan historical fiction out of the silken palaces and court intrigue and into the streets of London. 
  2. Make those streets, taverns and hidden locales into as real place as you can, make London itself a detailed, complex, vibrant character in the books.

Tyburn, the protagonist, spends comparatively little time in the environment that most readers tend to associate with the Tudor world of fiction – the worlds of Kings, Queens, of palaces and grand homes or the splendor and intrigue of the Royal Court. Almost all the story moments that are set in such places are ones that Tyburn is uncomfortable and in an environment that is, at best, somewhat alien to him.

The streets however are different. In the streets, he moves with ease, he can blend in, find his way. He can move through the bustling crowds, the hawkers and the carters. It is a rhythm and a pace that he is familiar with and, in that familiarity, he brings the reader along to discover the discord and colour of the Elizabethan world.
“The weather was cold and damp and Tyburn’s breath hung in the air. A thin skiff of ice crackled underfoot where puddles had formed between desultory sets of cobbles and thick, sagging expanses of mud. Tyburn gave a rooting pig a sharp kick to open up some walking space between the stony wall of a building and a heavily laden cart. The cantilevered upper stories of the timbered houses on Shepard Lane hovered overhead like an oppressive canopy, giving the narrow laneway the feel of a mountain defile.”
Building an evocative setting for historical fiction is difficult, particularly for an era that few physical structures remain, such as the Tudor period. While most Tudor-era structures were laid waste by the impact of time, the Great Fire and, most recently, by the Luftwaffe and modern developers, there are still a wide range of primary and secondary sources that can help.

In trying to understand Tudor London and generate as vivid a picture of the setting as possible, the first and best starting point is to develop a picture of the physical geography of the place. A map is critical and there are a number of historical maps, panoramas, and other sources that you can use to dive into the structure of the city. Understanding how the city developed over time, the growth of population, critical infrastructure, points of entry, key industries and social structures all provide insight into the experience of walking those streets.

In the case of London, the Civitas Londinum map, also called the Agas Map, offers a brilliant view of London from about 1561. If you want, you can lose several hours exploring the interactive version online (https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca), which is a fabulous resource for writers. Beyond whatever maps are available, there are primary sources that touch upon the social structure, geography and commerce of the day. Again for London, I would recommend John Stow’s A Survey of London, published in 1598, which offers up a richly detailed survey of the city and its inhabitants.

One thing the Tudor era does not lack, is written documentation. You can read plays (Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson), commercial records, court records, proclamations, crime or religious pamphlets, sermons, travellers accounts, cookbooks, books on manners, legal records, even books that delve into the vagaries of cozenage (con-artists and tricks), gambling, roguery, crime and begging.

All of these sources together need to be processed, reviewed and considered from the writer’s point of view. Detail and depth are terrific but they need to serve the story foremost. As fascinating as we might find the background of a certain church or street, it needs to illuminate some aspect of the story world or the characters inhabiting it. Details that are immersive, that involve all the senses, such as the stench of a shambles, or the strident shouts of street hawkers, the feel of a starched ruff, are all details used to pull the reader into the setting and to experience it more richly.

The key goal is to make the setting a living place, with hidden depths and byways, and a myriad bustle of inhabitants that make it more than a painted backdrop. Done right, it makes the world your story inhabits one that engages the reader and feels real and lived in. And engagement helps turn the pages!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief dive into settings in historical fiction! Feel free to dive in a little more and grab a copy of my new book THIEVES’ CASTLE, now available for Kindle ebooks and print on AMAZON.

US https://amzn.to/2Nk8sKM
UK https://amzn.to/2LelIz1
Canada https://amzn.to/2Pl3foP

Dean Hamilton works as a marketing professional by day and prowls the imaginary alleyways of the Elizabethan era in his off-hours. He is married, with a son, a dog, and a small herd of cats. He is the author of the gripping Elizabethan thriller series The Tyburn Folios.

Website: www.tyburntree.blogspot.com
Twitter: @Tyburn__Tree