Monday 30 December 2013

Review of Wolf's Head by Steven McKay

Wolf's Head (The Forest Lord, #1)Wolf's Head by Steven A. McKay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed McKay's debut novel. It is action-packed, with quite a light touch on the historic and more focus on the fiction. The plot is pacey and quite simple, yet engaging.

The main difference with this telling of the Robin Hood story and others is the period it is set in. I found the details of the historical context, with mentions of the Despensers and King Edward II to be a bit forced. They didn't add a lot to the story in my opinion and felt like a bit of an afterthought. All the characters you expect are here: Robin, Will Scarlet, Little John, Alan-a-Dale and Friar Tuck. But despite mention of some of the robberies the band of outlaws carry out, the life in the forest never felt that much of a hardship.

I found some of the use of language a bit off-putting. For example, talk of people feeling adrenaline coursing through their veins (11 mentions of adrenaline), when adrenaline was not discovered until 1900, throws me out of the story. Call me picky, but I find this type of anachronistic language difficult to swallow in historical fiction. I have no problem with the use of modern turns of phrase in dialogue, as I understand that the writer wants to make it seem natural and easily understood, but mention of things that have not yet been invented or discovered, I find problematic.

Having said all of the above, I do not want to give the impression I did not enjoy the novel. It is an easy read, with characters that are likable with a clear sense of right and wrong. You root for Robin and his band of rogues, but you need to take it all with a pinch of salt. It is classic derring-do, but fun all the way.

4 stars - looking forward to the sequel.

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Sunday 29 December 2013

A trip to Northumbria - Part 2: Bamburgh Castle and Gefrin

I thought it was time to write up the second part of my trip to Northumberland, otherwise I ran the risk of writing about it next year!
Read about Part 1 here.
I drove up the coast through the rain to Bamburgh Castle. It is not that far from Dunstanburgh and it didn't take long. It is an extremely important place, both in terms of my novel, The Serpent Sword, and for the history of Bernicia, the more northerly kingdom of Northumbria in the seventh century. It was the seat of power of the Bernician kings. It is situated on an imposing crag, overlooking the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne. The site is incredible, its location makes it practically impregnable and it is an amazing vantage point over the surrounding land and sea.
Bamburgh Castle from the southern approach
Today it is a beautiful castle and well worth a visit. But, despite being the actual location where some of the events in my story take place, it did not impact me in the same way that Dunstanburgh Castle did. It is too sanitised. The whole structure is a reinvention of a medieval castle, rebuilt just over a hundred years ago.
The castle is an impressive, but sanitised, reinvention; removed from the real history
It still has the great views and some very interesting items in the halls and rooms, and a very nice cafe, where I had to stop for a cream tea (it would have been rude not to!), but it is lacking the ruggedness, the rawness of the castle just a few miles south down the coast.
Standing on the wall of Bamburgh Castle
It is a tourist attraction, first and foremost, and in being so popular, it has managed to lose that which attracts the tourists, or at least that which attracts me. It is somehow removed from the real history of the place.
Bamburgh Castle cream tea - it would be rude not to!
It was a documentary about a graveyard at Bamburgh, where they have found Anglo-Saxon remains, that got me started writing The Serpent Sword in the first place. The programme was called Meet The Ancestors, and there are lots of references to it in the museum in Bamburgh Castle, but I have not seen the programme since that very first time in 2001. I'd love to see it again, but I cannot find it on YouTube or online. If anyone has a copy, give me a shout!
After checking the time and realising I had less than three hours left until I needed to be back in Newcastle to meet my wife, I jumped into my little hire car, set the sat nav on my phone for a location on a small road in the middle of the Northumberland countryside, and sped off into the rain.
I was heading to one of the key sites in my novel and in the Bernicia of early seventh century - Gefrin. It was the site of one of the royal vils of King Edwin of Northumbria. Bishop Paulinus baptised the members of Edwin's court in the river Glen near there. It was destroyed by fire in 633, rebuilt several times, but ultimately disappeared and was lost in the mists of time until some aerial photos of the site in 1949 showed the outlines of  buildings in the fields.
The archaeologist Brian Hope-Taylor carried out many digs at the site and made several interesting finds. The site is now owned by The Gefrin Trust. It has placed some plaques and signs at the entrance to the field, but there is little else there to show its historical importance.
I arrived in the late afternoon and the rain finally decided to give me some respite. It was overcast, with broken cloud. The sun was attempting to shine through, but failing.
Gefrin lies north of the B6351 and there is a small lay-by where I parked. The road is small and quiet, with only a few other cars passing every once in a while.
Welcome to Ad Gefrin - informational sign
The gateway into the field is carved with goat heads and is evocative of the gables of the great hall that stood there in the Dark Ages. (Gefrin means "hill of the goats".)
The gate to the hill of the goats
As I stepped over the stile into the long, plush, rain-soaked grass, I was struck by the stillness. The large area is surrounded by brooding hills. Grey clouds billowed over the peak to the north. To the south, a farmer burnt some refuse on a bonfire, the smoke wafting on the slight breeze.
Surrounded by brooding hills
I traipsed through the grass, the rain drenching my trousers and feet (as I discovered that my hiking shoes were not at all waterproof!). A small brown bird, surprised at my approach, burst from the foliage and flew away, squeaking angrily.
Moody selfie in Gefrin
I stood there, dimly aware of time ticking by, and that I'd need to head back towards Newcastle and civilization soon. But as I surveyed the land around me, I could imagine the wooden buildings of Gefrin surrounding me. The smoke could have come from the forge, where Strang, and his daughter Sunniva, worked the metal for spear points and tools. The view of the hills could have been partially blocked by the great hall, its wooden-shingled roof, bejeweled and glistening with the remnants of the rain. The unusual, tiered, amphitheatre-like structure, where it is possible Paulinus preached to his recently-converted Christians or King Edwin addressed his subjects, would have cast its shadow over the grass.
The same flowers would have grown there. The same grass. It was easy to imagine how it would have been nearly 1,400 years ago.
I didn't have long to soak up the atmosphere. My shoes were sodden and making me uncomfortable. A car sped by on the road, breaking the silence. I had to leave this place and rush back to Newcastle.
The drive back was uneventful and I made good time. I drove through hills, small villages and forests, all the time thinking of the characters in my story walking these same lands, traversing tracks and old, crumbling Roman roads. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed.
I arrived back at Newcastle to find that Newcastle United was playing Inter Milan and the city was heaving with football supporters. I was pleasantly surprised that I was only a few minutes late back to our hotel, despite the stadium being right across the road.
I ended the day with a lovely meal with my wife at the wonderfully historic Blackfriars Restaurant. It was a perfect ending to a long, inspiring day. I hope to be able to return to Northumberland soon for more hands-on research - especially of the great food and beer!
Beer at Blackfriars Restaurant

Thursday 12 December 2013

Mini review of The Pagan Lord by Bernard Cornwell

The Pagan Lord (The Saxon Stories, #7)The Pagan Lord by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More tales of Uthred from the master storyteller. This is not the best book in the series, and at times it felt a little like Cornwell was treading water, or trying to find a direction for the plot. However, the characters are strong as always and the final build up and grisly, gripping battle at the end provide the necessary and fulfilling pay off for the story.

View all my reviews

Sunday 24 November 2013

Discovery Day and Pitching Novels to Agents: Video Blog

Here is my first ever video blog. In it, I talk about the Discovery Day event I attended in Foyles and how the novel pitching went.

Let me know if you enjoy the video. If it is popular, I will do some more in the future.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Pitching my novel

I am knackered! Work and life are both busy, but I have been furiously getting myself ready for the event this Saturday, where I'm going to pitch my novel to agents.
Following the comments I got on my last post, and some research, I have come up with the following (with a lot of help from my lovely wife too!):
Can a young man mete out vengeance without losing his honour or his soul?
Beobrand embarks on a quest for revenge in 7th century Britain. On his journey he joins a group of warriors, but when they rape and murder a young woman, Beobrand questions the path he has chosen and vows to bring the men to justice.
What do you think?
Last chance to give me some comments! Any inputs much appreciated! 

Thursday 31 October 2013

Time: Where does it go and what do I do with it?

Well it has been over a month since my last confession blog post. I always find it difficult to set aside time for the blog, there is just so much else going on, and most of those other things take a higher priority than scribbling down random thoughts for a few nameless strangers to read online. However, if you are one of those strangers who stumbles across my blog and finds it even a tiny bit interesting, I would love to hear from you. A comment on this blog, or a tweet to me, or a "like" of my Facebook page, makes it all worthwhile and gives me a warm feeling inside. So don't be shy - get in touch and make me a happy man.
So, what have I been busy with? Besides work, which has been quite hectic of late, school has started, with the inevitable barrage of children's activities. I have been fulfilling that duty of many a parent: taxi driver. On top of that are all the usual jobs that a husband and father needs to do (and frequently doesn't do fast enough, or well enough), such as cleaning, cooking, securing the trampoline in the garden before the recent huge storm. You know the kind of thing.
I also sing in a band, and rehearsing and playing gigs takes up a lot of my time. It's a hard life, but someone has to do it!
So, as you can imagine, there is precious little time left for writing, and what time there is, I spend working on my novel, and not on this blog. Therefore, I hope you feel special that I am writing this just for you right now.

Sunday 22 September 2013

A trip to Northumbria - Part 1: Dunstanburgh Castle

The cold rain beat against my face. It blew in from the churning slate-grey of the North Sea. Clouds roiled above, heavily-laden; the weather was not going to break for some time, though there were small patches of lighter sky that hinted at the sun trying to push its way through the gloom. I pulled my collar up and trudged on. Water streamed down my face and I regretted not having put up my hood when I had set out from the tiny village of Craster on the mile and a quarter long walk to Dunstanburgh Castle. Too late now. I was already drenched and there was still quite a trek to go.
The elements were trying to dampen my spirits, but I was happy. For this was the first time I had been back to this wonderful place for over thirty years and it felt like coming home. I lived in Northumberland for three years as a child and I fell in love with the rugged coastline then. Dunstanburgh Castle had always been one of my favourite places, and as I had driven into Craster that morning in the hire car, I had felt an almost overwhelming sense of belonging. I experienced such strong emotions that I wondered how it was possible for somewhere in which I had spent such a relatively small amount of time to feel like home.
The area of Northumberland roughly corresponds to the kingdom of Bernicia, which is where I chose to set my novel, The Serpent Sword. So it was with relish that I seized the chance to visit when my wife said she had a study day at Northumbria University in Newcastle as part of her degree course. It all made perfect sense: she would do her study day, I would visit some of the locations in my novel and we would then spend a couple of days together while my parents looked after our kids. Everyone's a winner. Well, except perhaps my parents...
That morning had been a bit awkward. My wife was extremely nervous about meeting her tutors and fellow students at the start of her final year dissertation, but I was as excited as a child about to go to the funfair. I tried not to show it, but failed miserably. She can always read my moods easily. After a while of putting up with my nervous chatter and bouncy good humour over breakfast, while she stewed with worry over how she was going to tackle her dissertation, she told me that karma was a bitch and I'd get my payback for being so happy when she was so wound up. I toned it down and shut up.
After dropping her off at the university with suitably supportive words and a new leather-bound notebook I had bought for her in an attempt to undo my earlier thoughtlessness, I jumped in the hire car, set the sat nav on my phone, and set off for the first of the three places I planned to visit before being back at the hotel by six o'clock. It was nearly eleven in the morning, so time was ticking and I would need to rush to see all three sites: Dunstanburgh Castle, Bamburgh Castle and Gefrin.
An hour later I was at Craster and setting off on the damp walk to Dunstanburgh Castle. The castle was built several centuries after the events in my novel, but I have loved it ever since I first visited as a child. It is a very atmospheric place and as it is a castle on a cliff over the North Sea and only a few miles south of Bamburgh, I think I had merged the two castles together into one place in my mind. Perhaps even adding another place in Scotland into the mix too -- St. Abb's Head.
As I walked towards the ruins I looked out at the waves crashing into the rocky beach and images from my story flooded my mind.
"Far away on the horizon, beyond the sun-dappled waves of the Whale Road, storm clouds were brewing."
The sound of the waves, constant, yet ever-changing permeated the whole site. I would have heard the same crash, roar and occasional slap of waves breaking on the rocks if I had walked along this stretch of beach in the year 633 AD. The world changes so fast, but so much is just the same as it was for our forebears and it is easy in places such as Dunstanburgh Castle, especially on a blustery day with few people around, to imagine yourself transported to a past age.
Dunstanburgh Castle overshadows the area
When I reached the castle, I wandered around the ruins, taking care not to slip on the slick stones. I sat on a green, weathered rock inside the keep, sheltering from the rain and ate the sandwich I'd brought. I checked the time on my mobile phone, the reliance on modern technology bringing the present crashing back, and realised I'd need to hurry back to the car. There were still two more places for me to visit.

The ruins look out ominously over the beach and surf
I walked back as quickly as I could, the rain heavier now, really soaking me through. When I reached the gate back to Craster, I took shelter for a moment under the awning of the National Trust van and had a brief chat with the man (one Andrew Harkinns, I think his name tag said) who was there. His job was to sign up new members for the National Trust, but I don't think he was doing much business.
He asked me if I was going anywhere else and I mentioned I was off to Bamburgh and then Gefrin. He had never heard of Gefrin, so I briefly told him where it was and what its importance was in the seventh century (which I will cover in another blog). When I mentioned I was a "struggling author", he said I was the second author he'd talked to in as many days, though the other one was not struggling. Apparently she had told him she was number 48 in the Amazon Historical Romance chart. I've no idea who she was, but lucky her!
As I left, Andrew promised he'd look up Gefrin and me online, so if he has found this blog - hello!
I headed back to my car and continued up the coast for the second of my destinations: Bamburgh Castle. In the time of my novel it was called Bebbanburg and was the seat of power of the Bernician kings.
My visit to Bebbanburg, retracing the steps of my book's protagonist, will be a tale for my next blog post.

A nice couple from Yorkshire took a photo of me to prove I was really there

Sunday 1 September 2013

Editing, research and opportunities

The summer has flown by and I've been having a great time with my family. Time to go back to the day job now (boooo!) but also thought I should update on how I've been getting on with the novel and what I have planned for the next few weeks and months.
For the last couple of months I have been going through a printed copy of my manuscript, marking it up with notes and comments. I have also been getting feedback from my first test readers (most of whom have given very positive comments).
So now I have started working on the next draft of the novel, working through my edits on the manuscript, adding content where necessary, changing the point of view of certain passages, and adding back story to characters.
Some of this requires extra research as I stumble on areas that are missing depth. As part of that extra research, I am travelling to Northumberland in a couple of weeks to see some of the locations that feature in the story.
I already know I have taken certain liberties with geography, so after revisiting the sites again for the first time since I was a teenager, I will have to decide which of those liberties I feel comfortable leaving in the story and which I'll have to change. In the end though, the story is more important to me than the historical accuracy, so I am sure to annoy some purists.
I'll write a blog post about the visit to modern day Bernicia in a few weeks.
I've also started investigating in more detail how to go about getting an agent. Once I have completed the current draft I will be sending out submission letters to agencies hoping to get representation. I'll also send out a copy of the novel to a few more test readers who have registered an interest.
In my investigation into agents I discovered an event at Foyles in London. I applied to go and got accepted, so on 16th November I will be pitching my novel to agents from Curtis Brown Creative and Conville & Walsh Literary Agency. The event isn't aimed at getting representation, but it should be a great experience, and a chance to meet other writers as well as publishing professionals.
All in all, exciting times. Wish me luck and who knows what the next couple of months will bring?

Monday 5 August 2013

Don't let the voices hold back your writing!

Writing is tough.
Getting any semblance of good writing polished and ready to be read by others is difficult. It takes time and dedication, not to mention a good dose of talent. Oh, and a lot of hard work, of course.
Writing a novel is so hard it makes my toes curl. It consumes you. You have to plan it, then write a draft (which takes months or even years), then edit it, then edit it some more and redraft, then listen to people's comments about it and all the while you can hear the niggling voice of doubt whispering (or shouting) in your ear. "Your book is rubbish! Nobody is going to want to read it! Your characters are not likable. Your plot is thin. The story doesn't make sense."
I am still working on my first novel and I am currently in the phase where I have completed the first draft and I'm editing it to make it better. And I hear that voice of doubt everyday.
One part of me loves the book and my characters. I marvel at how I have managed to write almost a hundred thousand words (that is a tenth of a million, people!) and stay more of less sane. And those words actually tell a story, that actually makes sense!
But another part of me - the insidiously scared and pathetically weak part - thinks it is probably all a pile of crap and I should get back to doing something I do well (like singing in my band, perhaps).
I am sure every writer has these feelings of self-doubt (there are countless blogs and accounts of this phenomenon), but I don't know why we always have to question our abilities. Does it make us somehow better? Do we strive to improve because we question our skills?
Talking of singing, as I did rather incongruously a moment ago. For many years in my teens, I would sing and the default response from people would be to criticise me. "Stop singing - it's going to rain!" was one of my particular favourites. It really knocked my confidence and it took me a long time to understand that those people were not criticising my singing (I could, and still can sing well), they were just saying something negative as it is easier than saying something nice.
Think about it. We all do it.
It is easier to put someone down than it is to boost their morale. I think the voice inside our heads telling us we cannot do it, or we are not good enough, is just the same thing. It is so much easier to assume the worst than to praise our own talents.
What we need to do is use that fear to push us to improve our writing. We should never give in to the negativity. That way lies madness, unpublished books and broken dreams.
If we can learn to listen just the right amount, the voice can help us improve a weak plot point, or give a character more depth. But if the voice is holding you back, and you are paralysed, unable to submit your manuscript, it is time to tell it to shut up and just get on with it.
Things are rarely as bad as the voice would have you believe!

Sunday 28 July 2013

Writing Believable Characters

One of the things that every story needs is convincing, believable characters. I am currently going through my manuscript adding depth to my characters, writing back story and giving them unique voices. It certainly isn't easy to do, but there are a lot of resources out there that can help steer you in the right direction.
Here is a list of some sites that give you tips and exercises to improve the characters in your writing.
Good luck!

Quick Guide to writing convincing characters

How to Create a Fictional Character from Scratch

Writing 101: Creating Interesting Original Characters

Top 10 Questions for Creating Believable Characters

Creating Compelling Characters

Creative Writing Masterclass 2: Characters

Fiction Writers - Week 2 - Creating Characters

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Emotional depth and rounded characters

I haven't written a blog post in quite a while. I keep thinking of things I could write about, but then life takes over and writing a blog post gets pushed to the bottom of the "to do" list.
Since my last blog, I have not done a whole lot of writing, but the book is always in my mind. I had given the first 15,000 words to an editor for assessment and was waiting on that feedback before working further on the book. I had also given the latest draft of The Serpent Sword to some close friends to read and was eagerly awaiting their responses. After all, there would be no point in continuing to polish the book, if everyone hated it. Of course, this is the writer's nightmare, but one that is hard to ignore. What will they say about my writing? Will they like it? Will they lie? How will I know if they do? The insecurities of creativity are rife when letting others read your work for the first time.
So I waited anxiously for feedback, and given the aggressive schedule I had set for myself to get the first draft completed, I really felt like I needed a break. I know that my family would agree with that! So I have taken it easy on the writing front. I did jot down some synopsis ideas for the sequel, and even started to write the first chapter, but most of my free time has been spent doing other things.
Then, after a few days I started to get some positive feedback from a couple of the test readers. This was very encouraging. It appeared they were actually enjoying reading the story that I had written! What a great feeling. All the long hours of toil suddenly seemed worthwhile. In my mind my book was going to be a masterpiece, selling in dozens of languages, made into a film and a super series on HBO.
The Serpent Sword the next big thing on HBO?
Then I got the feedback from the editor and her comments, whilst on the whole positive, chipped away at the image I had of my book. The areas she mentioned needed most work were the very same things that my wife had commented on: the characters lacked emotional depth, their motivations needed to be made more clear through interior monologue.
I railed against the feedback. To add more emotional depth would somehow feminise the male characters in the novel.
Does my bum look big in this dress?
I asked myself searching questions. How much did people, especially men, really think about things in the seventh century?
Then I allowed myself to think a bit more on the comments (and spoke with my wife, who provides a very good sounding board) and I understood that it was not a case of making the characters more touchy-feely, or have them incessantly dwelling on each decision they make. What was needed was to make the characters deeper, and therefore, easier to relate to and more believable.
I needed to make my characters more rounded and three-dimensional
I am happy with the story as it is, but realised that in my efforts to complete the draft quickly I had cut corners which I don't think it is possible to cut and still produce a great book. I had created characters that did not have rich back stories. I didn't know them inside out and so the readers did not fully believe in them.
So, what's next?
I have decided to write detailed back stories for each of the main characters, so that I understand them. So that at each stage of the novel their decisions will make sense. Having these details will also allow me to add a smattering of anecdotes and tiny reminiscences that will add depth and an overall sense of reality.

It means I have a lot of work left to do, but I know it is the right thing. The book will be better for it, and I am already learning some very interesting things about the protagonist!

Sunday 16 June 2013

The Wild West of Dark Ages Britain

My novel, working title The Serpent Sword, is currently being edited and yesterday I started writing a historical note for the end, explaining some of the decisions I have made and liberties I have taken with the history. As I was writing, I started thinking about the way I have portrayed the land of Northumbria in 633 AD. 
The first half of the seventh century is situated deep in what is traditionally called The Dark Ages. The period is dark in many ways. It was a violent time, where races clashed and kingdoms were created and destroyed by the sword.
A lord with some of his gesithas
Men with ambition ruled kingdoms with small numbers of warriors - their gesithas, or retinue of companions. Although they professed kingship tracing back their claim through ancestors all the way to the gods themselves, I imagine them to be little more than gangsters, or the cattle barons of the American West of the nineteenth century. Each vied for dominance over the land, clashing with other kings in battles which were simply turf wars. They exacted payment in tribute from their ceorls, or churls - the peasants that lived on their land. This was basically protection money to keep the king and his retinue stocked up with weapons, food and luxuries, so that they would be at hand to defend the populace against the dangers of a largely lawless land.

A cowboy fights a native American
Throw into this mix racial tensions and the expansion of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from the east of Britain, enslaving and subjugating the older inhabitants of the island - the Waelisc, as the continental invaders called all foreigners (and the word that spawned the modern name for Wales, Welsh and Cornwall), and you have a situation not unlike the American “Wild West”. Invaders from the east, with superior fighting power destroying a proud culture that inhabited the land long before they came. As the Saexons (the name that the Waelisc gave to the invaders) pushed further westward, there would inevitably have been a frontier where any semblance of control from the different power factions was weak at best and at worst totally absent. As in the Wild West of cowboys and Native Americans, men and women who wished to live outside of the laws laid down by their societies would have gravitated into these vacuums of power.
Woden - all-father of the Anglo-Saxon pantheon of gods
As if that wasn’t enough, there is also the clash at this time of several major religions. Many of the native Celts would worship the same gods they had believed in for centuries whilst many others worshipped Christ; the Angelfolc (the name used by Bede and adopted by me in the novel to describe the people who would eventually become known as English) were just beginning to be converted to Christianity, but many still worshipped the old pantheon of Woden and Thunnor (more commonly known by modern day readers with the Viking names of Odin and Thor). 
Anglo-Saxon Christian cross
Christianity itself was being evangelised from two main power bases: the island of Iona, where the Irish tradition had taken root, and Rome, from where Italian priests, such as Paulinus had been sent. Christianity would eventually sweep all other religions away before it, and the disagreements on the finer points of theology would later be settled at the Synod of Whitby (but that is for another book).

A page from Bede's "A History of the English Church and People"
Above all else, the Dark Ages is an apt name for this period, due to the lack of first-hand written accounts. Much of what we know comes from writings that were penned many years later. Two principal sources are Bede’s “A History of the English Church and People” and the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, which was written by many nameless scribes over centuries. Earlier accounts of Germanic and Celtic tribes by Tacitus, a Roman historian are also useful for inferring what the early Anglo-Saxon cultures were like.
The fact that it is a time seen as "through a glass, darkly" makes it a perfect time to write about. An author does not have a free hand, but there are certainly more areas of uncertainty than with many other periods, allowing a level of flexibility to tell an exciting tale against a backdrop of turmoil and conflict.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Second draft complete and a word of warning

I haven't posted anything for quite some time (a month in fact) and there are a few reasons for that. The main one is that I have been taking a break from writing. I finished my first draft at Easter in line with my original plan that I posted back in January. Following on from that, I then went through the draft and added missing content, included some extra historical detail, rewrote sections and generally honed and polished the manuscript.
At that stage, as I was beginning to slow down following the intense period of writing the first draft, I realised I had been neglecting the rest of my life to some degree. Top of the list of those things I needed to focus on and spend more time with were my wife and daughters, who had patiently allowed me to tap away furiously on my laptop through the long winter months.
So, with the days growing longer and warmer, and the draft reviewed, I have been spending some quality time with those closest to me. And jolly nice it is too! We've been on holiday to Cornwall, had BBQs in the garden and generally chilled out and recovered from what has been one of the longest, wettest and dullest winters I can remember.
It has only been in the last few weeks that I can see quite how immersed I was in the writing process. A word of caution to all other first-time novelists out there: it is easy to forget the important things around you when you are conjuring up a world of fiction in your head, so be careful to ensure you spend time with your partner and kids if you have them.
My day job has also been intensely busy, meaning that for lots of the time I would have often been too tired to think of writing anyway.
So, where am I now with the book?
Well, as I said, I have finished the second draft. I have also printed it out to have a look at what 95,000 words looks like. If you are interested, here is a picture of the manuscript on my desk at home.

Seeing it like that did make it seem more real than just words on a screen. I had written that much? Wow! It is kind of a surreal feeling.
In my original plan, I had said I would send it out to some test readers and then engage a professional editor. I have actually ended up doing both at the same time.
I have sent the first 15,000 words of the manuscript of The Serpent Sword to an editor for an initial assessment and I have also sent a handful of copies of the draft in .mobi format (Kindle's proprietary format) for close friends and family to read and provide feedback on.
I intend to send out more copies for test readers following receiving and implementing comments from the editor in a few months.
I have made the decision that I will try to get an agent and a traditional publishing deal. If after a few months I find that impossible, I will self-publish on the Kindle Store, Smashwords, etc.
Things are moving on. I have not forgotten the blog, but I post on Twitter and Facebook more regularly with small updates, so please follow me and like the Facebook page (buttons on the top right of the page).
I have the ideas for the sequel bubbling on in the back of my head and I'll start jotting some of those down soon. I hope you stick around for the ride, and with any luck, you'll actually be able to read the finished version of The Serpent Sword in the not too distant future.

Saturday 11 May 2013

Just keep it simple!

I was struggling. Writing and rewriting parts of a pivotal chapter. The chapter when the protagonist is involved in events that shape his character. Actions that set in motion his story arc for the rest of the book.

Nothing worked. I knew it, which is why I kept going back and redoing sections. The problem was that I had tried to do something clever with the timeline. I started the chapter in one point in time, a couple of months from where the last chapter left off, and then I recounted the events that had occurred in the intervening months, bringing the action back to the original timeline. It was convoluted and I'm sure would work in many books. In fact, I've read similar things numerous times. But in my story, where everything up to that point had been in chronological order it was jarring.
I talked it through with my beautiful, supportive, wise and very well-read wife, and she gave me a great piece of advice.
"It's your first book," she said. "Don't use tricks, just keep it simple."
At first I argued the case for keeping the structure the way I had laid it out. It was clever. It wasn't exactly a flashback and it should work. But in the end, I understood that, as so often in my life (though not always, despite what she thinks!), my wife was right.
I went back to the chapter and rewrote it to just flow in chronological order. And you know what? It works.
So, if you are struggling with a tough piece of storytelling, perhaps the answer is as simple as that - just keep it simple!

Sunday 24 March 2013

Ten great historical fiction novels or series

Historical fiction is a massive genre with many sub-genres. There are different historical periods and approaches to books. Some writers take a real historical figure and write about their life. Others create purely fictional characters set in a historical setting. This is often used for historical romance novels. The time and place is fixed in history, but most of the characters and events are purely fictional.
Lots of novels that could be considered historical fiction are really a different genre, placed into a time in the past. An example of this would be Umberto Eco's, "The Name of the Rose". It is really a whodunit thriller, but happens to be set in a medieval monastery. The ambiance of the place and time work with the story and have a considerable impact on people's actions, but in essence, the story is about a detective catching a killer.
The novel I am working on is set in a real historical period (the first half of the seventh century) and includes several real historical characters and events, but the story is told mainly through the eyes of a fictional protagonist and other people who exist only in my imagination (and hopefully the imagination of those who read the book once it is published). This is a popular format used by many other historical fiction writers and allows the freedom to explore things outside the scope of known historical fact.
Here I have presented a list of ten great historical fiction novels or series of novels with a short description. They are in no particular order and I have not written a lengthy review of each book, as I am sure that anyone reading this can find a wealth of information and reviews using Google.
Click the book titles to find more information.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of epic proportions. Set in the American West towards the end of the nineteenth century. No other novel I've read has deeper or richer characters and plot, woven together with the eye of a master writer.
Violent, shocking, at times funny, poignant, sad and joyful. A triumph of a book. One of my all time favourite books of any genre. The TV miniseries is good too, but read the book first.
The other novels in the series, whilst still enjoyable reads, pale into insignificance against the original book, "Lonesome Dove". Don't be tempted to read the prequels first. Read "Lonesome Dove" and then, if you love the characters, which you probably will, read the sequel, "Streets of Laredo".

The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell

The story of Arthur retold in gritty, action-packed realism. All the main characters are there. Merlin is magical, but it is never clear whether he real wields mystical powers or if he simply knows the ways of nature and the minds of men.
Native Britons defend their kingdom from the advance of the Sais (Saxons). Battles, betrayals, love and death.
Dark Ages Britain has never been so much fun to read.

The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell again. This time a few centuries later and based firmly in historical fact. The story of Alfred of Wessex and the struggles against the Danes as told from the point of view of the larger than life character of Uthred of Bebbanburg.
Not quite as good as the Warlord Chronicles in my opinion, but great books nonetheless.

The Conqueror Series by Conn Iggulden

Conn Iggulden is firmly in the vein of Bernard Cornwell's action-packed storytelling, but focusing more on the actual historical figures rather than fictional characters involved in the events.
This, his second series of historical books, follows the rise of Genghis Khan and the Mongol nation. Gripping stuff.

The Emperor Series by Conn Iggulden

Conn Iggulden's first series follows the life of Julius Caesar. You may think you know all about the Emperor of Rome, but the story stretches over four books and never gets boring.
If you like Roman history, this series is a must.
Update: There is now a fifth book in the series - "Emperor: Blood of Gods". This tells the story of the bloody aftermath of Caesar's assassination.

Shieldwall by Justin Hill

I've only just read this book but think it deserves a place in this list. It is the first in a series leading up to the Battle of Hastings. Justin Hill's clever use of language that is directly derived from Old English and the meter of his prose that could so easily be imagined echoing in a great mead hall as part of a scop's epic saga, lends this page-turner a real sense of authenticity.
Strong characters, bloody battles and beautiful prose. What's not to like?

The Aubrey-Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian

The absolute master of historical fiction. The best praise for this series is that it feels as if it could have been written in the early nineteenth century - the time the books are set. The attention to detail is incredible and the main characters, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, are so well formed that you feel you know them like members of your own family by the end of the series.
The writing can be hard going, especially to start with, but persevere and you'll be rewarded with twenty of the best historical fiction novels ever written.

The Troy Series by David Gemmell

David Gemmell is not best-known for historical fiction, he is much more famous for his fantasy writing, but this series, set around the battle of Troy is rich with historical details and Gemmel's usual flair for strong characters and exciting story lines.
Gemmell sadly died before finishing the last of the three books in the series and his wife, Stella Gemmell finished the book. The aptly named "The Fall of Kings" has an added poignancy as a result, but unfortunately suffers from a lack of consistency.

The Chronicles of Iona by Paula de Fougerolles

I have to admit that I haven't actually finished this one yet, but from what I have read so far, the writing evokes the time and place with aplomb. The characters of Columba and Aedan are robust and engaging and it is a story I know little about. It is set some eighty years before my own novel starts, so I was particularly interested to see how she deals with the location and the period.
So far I am not disappointed.

Legend by David Gemmell

OK, so this isn't really a historical novel. It is David Gemmell's first novel and set in his fantasy setting of Drenai. It tells the story of the siege of Dros Delnoch and introduces his wonderful character, Druss the Legend. Anyone who likes action-packed adventure, battles and great characters will love this book.
It is escapism at its best and one of my favourite books.

Friday 15 March 2013

A glimpse of the muse

It has been over a month since I last posted on this blog and I thought I should write a quick update to prove that I haven't disappeared or given up on the book. I haven't. I have been focusing on the first draft and I'm still on track to meet my first deadline of getting it complete by the end of March.
I am now up to 89,700 words and the end is in sight. I am in the last chapter, or maybe there'll be one more. I'm not sure. Extra things keep happening in the story that I didn't know would take place, which is weird. It is like magic. The words come and events transpire in this fictional story that didn't exist before. It is hard to know if it is any good, but it is new, and it comes from nowhere.
The muse. Imagination. Whatever you call it, it is a strange feeling when characters do things you weren't expecting when you sat down to write that day. I know some writers map out every beat and every tiny scene in their stories before they write, but I am enjoying not knowing everything in advance.
So now, until I come back to report that I've finished the first draft, I'll leave you with a little excerpt from it. A glimpse of the muse at work.
"From between two of the charcoal mounds stepped a tall warrior. He walked with the relaxed confidence of one assured in his power. He was clad in leather and metal, his hair was dark and unkempt. He exuded strength and malevolence in equal measure.  
Strang stared at the man’s face. If he needed any further proof of what had happened and what was soon to pass, that face took any doubt from his mind. It was hard, with dark shadows veiling the eyes. And it was horribly disfigured. A raw, red, seeping scar ran from the man’s left eyebrow all the way down to his lightly-bearded chin. When he smiled, the scar seemed to smile too, pulling his face into a distorted mask. The other side of his face was undamaged, and he would probably once have been handsome. But he was now repulsive. His was a ghoulish face, like some monster stepping from the darkness of a mead hall tale into the light of day."

Sunday 10 February 2013

Rugby: The Modern Shieldwall?

I've been quiet for the last couple of weeks, but I've kept busy with the writing. I've now written 79,495 words of the first draft and I have only got a couple of chapters left to write to get me to the finish line. So I'm  pretty much on track according to my plan. I'm getting quite excited now by the prospect of actually getting the draft complete and then starting to edit and clean it up a bit before the next stage.
I did my writing today just after watching England beat Ireland at rugby in the Six Nations and I couldn't help but wonder whether the men who today play professional rugby are similar in physique and temperament to the warriors who would have stood shield-to-shield in the shieldwalls of Dark Ages Britain.
They are strong and heavyset, seemingly oblivious to pain or intimidation, willing to throw themselves into the fray with little or no thought to their own well-being. They are purely driven by the goal to beat their opponents and to help their teammates.
Look at the scrums in rugby, with the mud, blood, screams, pushing, stamping and roars of exertion. It is not too difficult to imagine similar, if a lot more deadly scenes, over a thousand years ago as two war bands of opposing nations clashed in battle. They would have wielded seaxes, swords and spears. And they would have worn armour and borne shields of linden. But in essence there would have been two groups of savagely-competitive men vying over a small piece of muddy earth. Of course, there would be no physios for muscle strains and losing the game would mean death!

There is something almost gladiatorial about rugby, with the terraces of thousands of baying fans in Colosseum-like stadia, but if you removed the crowds and placed the men in a field somewhere, I think it would be reminiscent of those early battles of the past.

Sunday 20 January 2013

Would fantasy have been the easy option?

I've been making great progress on the novel in the last couple of weeks. This week I went over the 70,000 word milestone that I had originally set myself as my end goal. Anything over that is novel length, or so I have read. So I feel as if I am really going to finish this book now, even though it is going to be quite a bit longer than 70,000 words (which is about 200 paperback pages).
Writing is a solitary pursuit and it is easy to lose self-belief. I find the best way is to set myself goals that I can hit in a short period of time. So I try to write at least 3,000 words a week, or at least 500 words in a sitting. That kind of thing. I do sometimes feel like I am more interested in how many words I've written than what I am writing, but that is not the case. It is the case though, that a novel is not written in a day. It is made up of many small sections of writing done at different times, just as a dry stone wall  is made up of many different stones. It is the writer's job to fashion each of these stones and then fit them all together so that the wall stands on its own.
I got a new laptop for Christmas and now take it everywhere, writing whenever I have a few minutes spare between all the other things I have to do as a father, husband, singer in a band and employee of a private company. All of these eat into my time, but it is amazing how much you can get done in the downtime with a bit of discipline and perseverance. I get some strange looks from other parents while waiting to pick up my kids from clubs. The mums and dads chat and watch their children, I sit in silence, computer on my lap and try to concentrate. I probably seem rude, or a bit of a recluse (definitely not my character at all), but I feel anxious if I do not make progress on my book when I have a whole hour to myself. It feels as if I am somehow cheating if I do not write.
After a few minutes I manage to transport myself once more into the world of my book. A world that is little-known to most people today, including me. The world of Britain some 1,400 years ago. The period known as the Dark Ages is, to most people, dark in terms of the amount they know about it. I fell into that category when I started writing my story. I knew next to nothing about the seventh century, but had a vague idea for a story based around documentaries I'd seen, or novels I'd read, with very little in the way of concrete historical fact.
As I've progressed, I've accumulated more knowledge. I've bought books and read information on different websites and blogs, but I am still no historian. Almost every time I sit down to write I come across another question. What trees grew and how many were there in Northumbria? Did common people know of the Romans who had left the island nearly two hundred years before? How common was the use of money? How exactly were slaves treated? The list goes on and on.
Some of the questions have answers that can be found, others are more difficult and depend on what you read. One thing is certain though, there will be people who will read my final book and find anachronisms in it. I will never be a historical expert, and there will be people who are real historians who know of things that I am not aware of and they will quickly see beyond my thin veneer of knowledge. I hope that they will be able to get past that and enjoy the book on its merits as a story based in an often-forgotten time.
However, from time to time I do think that it would have been an easier option to have created the story in a fantasy world. A pseudo Dark Ages Britain where nobody would be able to tell me I'd got it wrong. I could even have dragons and trolls marauding through the land, and not just in the tales told in the mead hall. But I am past that point now. I settled on the genre and now the book has taken on a life of its own. All I have to do is keep picking up the stones and working out how to place them in the wall. Some of the stones may not be historically accurate, but I hope they all fit together to tell a good story.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Progress report and plan

I'm nearly 65,000 words in to the first draft. It's been a productive first week of 2013 but I still have a long way to go. I'd naively thought that the book would be about 70,000 words long (the minimum length of a novel), but I now realise that it will be longer than that. Probably somewhere around 100,000 words or a bit more. Of course, that all depends on how the story develops, and how many words it takes to write it!
Here is my tentative plan for the next few months:

  1. Complete the first draft by Easter.
  2. Put the draft on ice for a few weeks so that I can look at it with fresh eyes.
  3. Read through the draft and mark up areas that need extra work. I'm anticipating that there will be a few bits that are lacking detail (historic and otherwise), and a bit of restructuring will be required. I already know of a few sections where I have changed my mind and need to rewrite what happens to better serve the story.
  4. Add extra content and do the rewrites.
  5. Once the second draft is ready (not really sure how long that will take - part of me thinks it will take a long time - probably a few months), I plan to send the draft manuscript off to a few friends and family as test readers. With the draft I'll send a questionnaire for the test readers to fill in. The questionnaire will aim to pinpoint where readers were bored, or confused, which characters they liked or disliked, that sort of thing.
  6. Hopefully the test readers will return the questionnaires and I'll act on their comments by honing the manuscript into a third draft.
  7. At that stage, I'll find a professional editor to edit the manuscript.
  8. Do all the rewrites the editor asks for (or argue with the editor!).
  9. The final manuscript will then be ready. I'd like to think that could be sometime towards the end of 2013, or perhaps more realistically early 2014.
  10. Publish. I'll probably self-publish as an ebook, but that is a decision I'll need to take then. If I do self-publish, I'll need to work on other things like a website, formatting, a cover design etc. But that will be for another post in the future.
So, as you can see there are lots of things to occupy my time for the next year, but first thing's first - I'd better get that draft finished.