Monday 14 April 2014

The Blogging Tour: About My Writing Process

Recently, author Courtney J. Hall asked me to join in a Blogging Tour. I've never been involved with this kind of thing before, but decided it could only be fun, right? It is a kind of bloggers' chain mail in which writers answer four questions about their writing process. You can see Courtney's answers to the questions here.

At the end of this post, you can see who the next writers are that will carry on the chain. They are all great writers, so make sure you check them out.

Now, without further ado, here are my answers.

What am I working on?

I am working on the first draft of THE CROSS AND THE CURSE, the sequel to my first novel, THE SERPENT SWORD. Both books are action-packed historical fiction set against the backdrop of the clash between peoples and religions in Dark Ages Britain.

They follow the story of a young man, Beobrand, who begins the first book seeking vengeance for his brother's murder. Beobrand is relentless in pursuit of his enemies and the challenges he faces change him irrevocably. Just as a great sword is forged by beating together rods of iron, so Beobrand’s adversities transform him from a farm boy to a man who stands strong in the clamour and gore of the shieldwall.

A symbol of power in the Dark Ages

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

That is a very difficult question to answer. 

I am not sure my work differs drastically from some of the writers I admire. I would happily be compared to Bernard Cornwell, Giles Kristian or Conn Iggulden, but I cannot say I write as well as any of them!

When pitching my first novel to agents, I described it as "Jack Reacher in the Dark Ages". Beobrand faces his obstacles directly. With strength and a good dose of violence. I write with a dynamic style. Lots of short, snappy sentences. But always trying to use words and phrases that emote the historical period.

I do not overburden the writing with lengthy descriptions. I try to give just enough information for the reader to paint their own pictures.

I write historical fiction, with the emphasis on fiction. I want to portray a world that is believable, but I do not for one moment think that if I went back in time, the world would be as I depict it. There would be some similarities, but I am sure my world makes for better reading than the reality.

Story always trumps history in my writing.

Authenticity over accuracy.

But if I deviate from what is know to have occurred, I add an explanation to a Historical Note.

Why do I write what I do?

I write what I would like to read. I really enjoy reading and writing the action scenes. I did some saber fencing a few years ago, and whilst I was never very good at it, I do think the experience has helped me to visualise combat sequences.

I love movies and some readers have described my style as cinematic. I certainly find it easier to describe the external, rather than the internal lives of my characters.

I like strong characters, with a real sense of right and wrong. But that does not mean they always do the right thing!

I chose to write about seventh century Northumbria more by accident than design.

I lived in Northumberland as a child and the area had a great impact on me. The rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline made it easy to imagine the past. Those childhood memories have always stayed with me. When I saw a documentary about Northumbria’s Golden Age, the seeds for THE SERPENT SWORD were planted and I began researching the period.
Looking north from Gefrin (Yeavering)

How does my writing process work?

I come up with some key historical events that will form the backbone for my novels. I then look to find more personal stories that my characters can live within the context of those historical events. One of the advantages of writing about the seventh century is that not a huge amount is known about the day to day life of people. Large brush strokes of the history have survived, but the stories of the individuals are lost in time. This is what makes the Dark Ages such an apt name. The details are hidden in the shadows of time. Making it possible for me to write pretty much anything, as long as it fits within the framework of what we know and it has the ring of authenticity about it.

I map out a high level synopsis based on the ideas I have around the real history and how my characters will interact with events. I then break down that synopsis into very rough chapters. Then each of those chapters I break down into scenes. This is not all done up front, but as I get to a chapter, when I have a better grasp of what I need to propel the story along. I try to keep each scene from the point of view of one character, but sometimes I break this rule.

When I sit down to write, I usually only have an hour, or perhaps two, and I'm often not sitting at my desk at home. I may be on a gym bench, while my daughters do their Tae Kwon-Do class. Or sitting in the car, waiting for my youngest to finish her tap dancing class. Or in the local Library, while she is doing her brass band practice. (Wow - she really does loads of activities!)
This was taken last year - there are more books now!

So, given the time constraints, I really need to focus. I put headphones in. Playlist set to Classical. And I quickly read what I wrote in the last session. I will make a few minor tweaks as I go. Fixing typos, or repetition. That kind of thing. But I don't allow myself to get bogged down.

I then leap into the next scene. I try to complete a scene at one sitting and I think this gives my writing good pace. Sometimes though, that is not possible. When time is running out, I jot down some notes for me to pick it up at the next sitting.

If I come across anything that I do not know. A type of tree. Some historical detail. The name of a king. Or a place name. Anything at all that would require me to stop and investigate. I add a note in [square brackets], like that. When I finish the first draft, the next thing I do, after doing a victory dance and drinking lots of beer, is search for all the square brackets and fill in the blanks.

I write chronologically, so, although I know there are some great scenes coming later, I have to get through the rest of the scenes to get there. I think this also helps make sure the story hangs together. When I get to the pivotal scenes, I know all the details that have gone before, so it is easier to write and the scenes are richer for the extra detail.

I try to write about three thousand words a week. Often I manage a few more, but rarely do I get more than four thousand down. So somewhere between eight and nine months to complete the first draft. And then a couple of months of edits before sending out to test readers for their feedback.

It is a time consuming business, this novel writing lark! But it is rewarding when you have a finished story.

I have recently got representation from a great agent, Robin Wade. My next milestone will be to see my work make it into print and on the shelves of bookstores. I can't quite believe that is really a possibility, but Robin has just pitched THE SERPENT SWORD at the London Book Fair and several editors have asked to see the full manuscript!

Follow this blog, like my Facebook page, or follow me on Twitter, to keep up to date with what is happening.

Next stop - publication!

More writing process blogs

Since writing this post, fellow Anglo-Saxon historical fiction writer Elaine Moxon asked me to carry on the chain for her, so, although my dance card was already full, I thought I would give her a mention here too. Elaine is the author of a Saxon series entitled ‘The Wolf Spear Sagas’, which span the 5th to 11th Centuries; each one a journey quest involving descendants from the previous books. Check out her blog here.

A week from now the following writers will post their own responses and carry on The Blogging Tour. Make sure you check out their blogs and read their books!

Justin Hill

JUSTIN HILL has been likened to George Orwell, a boxer and Tolstoy. He is currently working on the Conquest Trilogy, which chronicles the momentous events surrounding the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  The first of these, Shieldwall, was a Sunday Times Book of the Year.  His fiction has won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, a  Betty Trask Award and the Somerset Maugham Award.   It also has the rare distinction of being banned in China.

A H Gray

A H Gray lives in sunny Perth, Western Australia. She has a double degree in History and Archaeology from the University of Western Australia, yet due to the lack of Anglo-Saxon hoards or Viking boat burials down under, she has had to content herself with writing about them instead. Her debut historical fiction novel is The Northumbrian Saga and she writes weekly posts on her favourite historical period at

E.M. Powell

E.M. Powell is the author of the #1 Amazon bestseller, The Fifth Knight, a historical thriller based on the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. She was born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins, the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State. She currently lives in Manchester in the north-west of England. She is currently working on a sequel, The Blood of The Fifth Knight.

Ellie Irving

Ellie Irving is the author of 'FOR THE RECORD' and 'BILLIE TEMPLAR'S WAR'; quirky, funny stories for children aged 9+. An early obsession with 'Murder, She Wrote' inspired Ellie to become a writer, though she has yet to solve any crimes. She spends far too much time watching TV, though she insists it's all in the name of research. Ellie lives in London and her third children's book, 'THE MUTE BUTTON' is published on June 5th.