Sunday 16 December 2012

A little bit of writing

I've made good progress this week. Up to 56, 800 words now of the first draft.
I've written a little about what inspired me to write the book, and a bit about the tools I use to do the writing. I think now is the time to show a small section of the writing.
It is from the first draft, so may well change substantially by the final edit, but it gives a pretty good idea of the type of book I'm writing. I hope you enjoy it.

Writing Sample

Oxa woke Beobrand the next day before dawn. Men were readying themselves all around them. Many were vomiting, leaving steaming puddles dotted throughout the encampment. Oxa handed him his spear and made sure he was holding his shield correctly. Oxa was wearing his full armour and in the dark he looked like a giant out of a bard’s tale.
“Here, take this.” Oxa handed Beobrand a seaxe. It was short, not much more than a knife, with a simple bone handle. “It doesn’t look like much, but it is a good blade and holds its edge well. Once we are in close, you will find it more use than the spear. Your brother gave it to me and it served me well. He would have wanted you to have it.”
Beobrand thanked him and they walked together towards the edge of the camp that was closest to the enemy. This is where the shield wall was forming and Edwin had taken Oxa’s advice and set up camp to the east of Cadwallon’s and Penda’s armies so that when they attacked the sun would be in the eyes of the Mercians and Welsh.
As they neared the centre of the line, Beobrand saw that Edwin and Osfrid were standing there, with their most trusted thanes around them. They parted and allowed Oxa and Beobrand to take up places in their ranks. Oxa could sense that Beobrand was finding it difficult to control his excitement so he turned to him and said in a calm voice, “Easy now, Beobrand. This is your first battle and you will not be wanting to die in it, so listen to me.” Oxa took off his helmet and Beobrand could just make out the scar running down his face from his left eye to his upper lip. “Use what I have shown you. If you stick by me, you’ll be all right. And remember, if I get one of their shields down, get in quick and skewer the bastard.”
Beobrand nodded and turned his attention towards their enemies, who had seen that Edwin’s Northumbrians were readying for battle and were forming their own shield wall. They were standing in a ragged line at the top of a small rise, the sky behind them a dark purple. The land in between was flat and boggy. To the centre of the enemy line Beobrand made out a standard bearing a wolf’s head and several wolves’ tails. To the left of that he saw another banner, this one carried a human skull and a crossbeam from which dangled what appeared to be human scalps. The men below those standards were lifting up spears, and strapping on shields. Preparing for battle. Preparing to kill. Smoke billowed from their campfires behind them, mingling with the ground fog.
Beobrand wondered if one of the men he could see in the dim pre-dawn light would kill him soon. Or perhaps he would kill some of them. He felt sick all of a sudden and started breathing through his mouth in an effort to calm his stomach. He closed his eyes and leant his head against the ash haft of his spear. Images from the last six months flooded his mind. His mother, shaking with fever, lying on the straw-stuffed mattress, soaked in sweat. His father, sobbing quietly from the corner of the hut. The sound of merriment from outside as the villagers celebrated Beltain. Then the horrific image of his father, spittle and vomit dried around his mouth, his dead hand still clutching the handful of druid’s cap mushrooms, the summer sun dappling his pain-stricken face.
“Wake up, boy!” Oxa’s gruff voice brought Beobrand back to the present. Back to the battle where he would either kill or be killed. He was no longer a farmboy, he was a warrior in Edwin of Northumbria’s army and for the first time since his parents’ deaths he felt he belonged. He opened his eyes and realised that the time had come. The sun was just beginning to peak out over the trees, shedding a pale light over the battlefield and casting long shadows in front of the Northumbrian warriors.
“Come, my countrymen!” shouted Edwin. “Let us send these pagans to hell where they belong. Kill them all! Attack them now and kill every one of them!”
“For Edwin!” came back the raucous response from the army, Beobrand’s voice as loud as the next man’s.
The shield wall surged forward. Beobrand felt his shield bang against the thane on his left as they ran and he tried to keep pace and his shield in the right position. I can’t believe I’m here, he thought. And then there was no more time for thinking. The men around him let fly their javelins with shouts of defiance. At the same time, the enemy threw theirs. Beobrand had no javelin but he watched as the light throwing spears were silhouetted against the sky, those of each side mingling together at the apex of their flights, and then he could see the burnished point of one spear glinting as it fell straight towards him.
Beobrand raised his shield above his head and kept running. He felt something hit the rim of the shield, but he was not wounded. The man to his left suddenly screamed, tripped and fell. Beobrand caught a glimpse of a javelin piercing the man’s right leg just above the knee. Beobrand looked away just in time to see that the enemy were mere steps away.
The two shield lines crashed together like waves hitting a cliff. Beobrand felt his shield smash against another. He pulled back, trying to get an opening at the warrior in front of him. As he did so, he realised it was a mistake. His opponent, a brutish, red-bearded Welshman, wearing a leather helm, pushed hard as he stepped back, causing Beobrand to lose his balance and fall sprawling to the muddy ground. The Welshman, smiling at how easily he had broken through the shield wall, pulled back his spear for the killing blow. Beobrand tried to scramble up, but the Weshman moved in too quickly for him to get to his feet. But just as the spear point came hurtling towards Beobrand’s exposed chest, Oxa turned and parried the blow with an over arm swing of his barbed spear. He swung with such force that the warrior lost his grip. The spear fell harmlessly to the ground next to Beobrand.
With practised skill and uncanny agility, Oxa pulled back his spear and, as their adversary feinted to draw his langseaxe, Oxa thrust his spear into the Welshman’s wooden shield. The barbs caught, and Oxa leant on the spear shaft, using his weight to pull the shield down.
“Now, boy!” Oxa shouted, struggling to hold on to his spear and avoid the cleaver-like langseaxe the Welshman had unsheathed. Beobrand scrambled to his feet, snatched up his spear and, letting out a roar that was lost in the tumult of battle, thrust his spear at the Welshman’s midriff. The man attempted to parry, but was hampered by his trapped shield and only succeeded in deflecting the spear upwards towards his unprotected face. With all Beobrand’s weight behind the thrust the point grazed over the man’s right cheekbone and pierced his eye. He collapsed instantly and the sudden deadweight on his spear pulled Beobrand down. He stumbled, landing in a heap on the warrior’s twitching corpse.
The anvil sound of metal on metal and the screams and grunts of the warriors surrounded him. He struggled to pull his spear from the eye socket of the warrior, but it was lodged fast. He pulled for a few heartbeats and then remembered the seaxe that Oxa had given him. He unsheathed it and with abandon, he threw himself into the rift in the shield wall. He had killed an enemy and all his fear had vanished like morning dew in the light of the sun. The noise of battle subsided around him and an inner calm washed over him.
A snaggle-toothed man with blood-shot eyes, peaked over a shield in front of Beobrand. Beobrand’s seaxe flicked out over the shield and rammed down the man’s throat. Oxa was screaming beside Beobrand, hacking and slashing with his sword, splinters from the enemies’ shields making a dusty cloud about him. The Northumbrian line was moving forward. A fallen warrior clawed at Beobrand’s leg, whether friend or foe, Beobrand neither knew nor cared. Battle lust was upon him and he had no time for the wounded. He stamped on the man’s fingers, feeling them snap under his foot and pushed his shield forward to meet the next enemy.
The enemy shield wall seemed to part and a grey-haired man wearing a fine suit of scale mail stood before him. He was wielding a blood-drenched sword and there was a pile of corpses at his feet. Beobrand didn’t think of the danger, he simply saw a gap in the line and walked forward to fill it. The old warrior looked surprised and slightly saddened as the young man, with no armour and only a splintered shield and short seaxe to protect himself, moved towards him to die. Something in the warrior’s grim face penetrated through the red mist that had descended on Beobrand and he looked around to see where Oxa and the other Northumbrians were, searching for aid against this mighty warrior. The moment of lucidity came too late however, and he saw that he had become completely cut off from his shield wall. The tide of the battle had shifted and he could now see that the Mercians and Welsh had managed to outflank the Northumbrians, who had fallen back towards their encampment, leaving Beobrand stranded and surrounded by enemies.
End of the Sample


  1. I like the way you leave the excerpt on a cliff-hanger; I assume this will be the end of a chapter and the hook leading the reader on to the next.

    I think your narrative is more “punchy” when you use short sentences, it gives a greater impact than the longer descriptive passages. “Preparing for battle. Preparing to kill.”

    Just a question, (I’m no expert either, far less knowledge than you I’m sure!) but is the term Welshman an anachronism?

    Keep at it!

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

    With regard to the terminology and anachronisms, it is a very difficult subject when writing this type of historical fiction. After all, short of writing it in Ænglisc (Old English, or Anglo-Saxon) or latin, every word is anachronistic.

    This is written from the perspective of an Anglo-Saxon warrior. He is from Kent, so would have considered himself a man from that kingdom rather than English (and certainly not Anglo-Saxon), but he would have spoken Ænglisc.

    I've used the modern term Welsh to refer to people from the Celtic tribes situated in what is now Wales. The term is derived from the Ænglisc word "Wælisc", which means foreigner.

    The way I refer to this type of thing in the book is something I need to address for consistency in the second draft.

  3. I'm hooked! I don't read a lot of novels set in the Dark ages, but love a good movie or documentary in that era.

    Enjoyed the descriptive style of the battle, and am looking forward to reading more.

    P.S. Can imagine you writing this battle while waiting for your daughters dance lesson to end :-)

    1. Thanks, Shane. Glad you enjoyed it.

      Sorry I didn't reply to your post sooner!