Sunday 30 August 2015

Camping in the wilds - inspiration for writing about the Dark Ages

I've just come back from our annual camping trip. Every year, we go for a few days to a different campsite that allows open fires (we all feel it adds to the experience). I really enjoy getting away from the business of day-to-day life, spending time with family in an environment where we are forced to talk to each other rather than watching TV (or Youtube, in the kids' case), looking at iPhones (though there was network coverage where we stayed this year, so we could still check messages, Facebook and Twitter!), but you get the idea.
Whilst camping we have to spend much of our time preparing food, tidying up, washing up, securing the tents, lighting fires, and everything else needed to stay dry, warm, fed and alive.

On top of the quality family time and the removal from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, I also see these trips as fuel for my writing. A few people have commented about how frequently I mention the weather in THE SERPENT SWORD. This is partly due to having spent time camping. People living 1,400 years ago in Britain would find themselves prey to the whims of the elements. Much of their existence would have been governed by the weather. Could they keep warm? Would the crops grow? Rain would make things rot, or rust. They may not have been camping, having permanent houses and halls, but the lack of modern day technology would make things we take for granted difficult chores. I consider the weather and the land to be almost extra characters in the story, as they affect the action.

The Isle of Wight is beautiful

Every camping trip we make is different, but I always learn something new. A few years ago, I learnt that a campfire that is burning hot with dry wood does not go out in torrential rain.

This year, we stayed on the Isle of Wight and there were extreme weather warnings in place during our stay. Gale force winds and hammering rain lashed us for the first day of our short stay. We survived and I learnt some things I hadn't considered before.

I learnt the following things that will all be stored away and used in future writing:
  • In truly windy weather, the noise of the trees and foliage whipping about is much too loud to allow you to hear anyone creeping up on you. 
  • It is next to impossible to get a good fire going with sodden wood. I kind of knew that already, but there's nothing like experience. We managed to get a fire going each day, but had to resort to firelighters and dry kindling. Drying out branches and logs by the fire helped, but the fires were smokier than was all together pleasant.
  • Talking of fires, anyone who has ever sat around a campfire will know that the stench of wood smoke seeps into your clothes and hair. Everyone in 7th century Britain must have stunk of smoke, and other things. Whether they would have noticed, is a different matter.
  • The smoke from a campfire, even a smoky one, cannot be seen from very far away in windy conditions. The smoke hazes and is blown away quite quickly. Obviously, this is dependent on the conditions.
  • Having a freezing cold shower outdoors is invigorating! I used a solar shower that, as there was no sun, had not heated the water, but I imagine washing in a river or a waterfall would give a similar effect! The washing itself was quite uncomfortable, with me scrubbing my shivering body as quickly as possible to remove the soap and shampoo. But afterwards, once dry, I felt uplifted and refreshed.
There's a bad moon rising
  • A full moon on a clear night gives more than enough light to travel by. I had read this before but that is not the same as stepping out of your tent at midnight to see the camp gilded in the silver light of the near-full moon.
  • When there is no wind or rain, sounds travel great distances, especially at night. When the gales had passed, one night I awoke to total silence. It was eerily quiet after the constant gusts and buffeting of the wind. As I lay there, I heard an owl hoot in the distance.
It was great to get away for a few days and, as always, I have come back with fresh ideas desperately wanting to be written into my next book.

As luck would have it, I am now up to 77,000 words of the first draft of the third of the Bernicia Chronicles: BY BLOOD AND BLADE. Beobrand and his companions are currently in the late summer of 635, and I have a feeling the weather is about to take a turn for the worse!

Sunday 2 August 2015

THE SERPENT SWORD - Historical Novel Society Editor's Choice!

This writing lark is quite weird. I never know what each day will bring. Will I find the time to sit and write? Will the muse whisper to me, or remain stubbornly silent? Will I get a new review? Will it be a good one, or a stinker?

So, it was with a little trepidation that I opened the email from the Historical Novel Society (HNS). The email title was merely "The Serpent Sword", but there was no other indication of the contents.

But I needn't have worried. This was the kind of email you don't often get, but you secretly hope for. The HNS has reviewed my novel, which is pretty good in itself, as not all novels make it past the initial stage of the review process. Not only that, but they have named it Editor's Choice, which also means it is automatically long-listed for the HNS Indie Award 2016!

This is cause for celebration indeed! Every positive review means a huge amount to me and I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to leave a few words and a rating on Amazon/Goodreads (I could do without the negative ones, but hey, I guess I learn from them too!). But to receive such high praise from a prestigious organisation that specializes in historical fiction is really amazing.

Here is what the HNS said about THE SERPENT SWORD:

Beobrand is a young man who travels from his home in Kent to join his older brother, Octa, in far off Bernicia. On arrival, he learns that his brother is dead, an apparent suicide, although he is told that it may have been murder. Beobrand is determined to find and kill his brother’s murderer. Whilst staying at a monastery, a small band of lord-less warriors threaten the sanctuary of the place but Beobrand stands up to them though, recognising a youth he had met at Bebbanburg  (Bamburgh), he decides to join them. This proves to be a bad choice as the men are violent killers with their leader, Hengist, the worst of them all. However, the experience does lead him to discover the identity of his brother’s murderer. Leaving them, Beobrand joins the army of King Eanfrith and faces the army of Cadwallon in the shield wall.

Matthew Harffy’s tale of England in the Dark Ages is nothing less than superb. The characters are lively and believable, true to their times and Beobrand is a likeable hero whose progress from farm boy to seasoned soldier is well traced. The tale is fast paced and violence lurks on every page, whether it be murder or war.

The cover is glossy, professional and eye-catching and leaves the casual browser with no illusions as to the content. The Serpent Sword is the first of a projected series and, having been fortunate enough to have read it, I look forward to its sequels. Highly recommended and a five star read from this reviewer.