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.