To create my own version of historical dialogue, one that is as true as possible to the period without sacrificing believability is the challenge I face in every one of my Anglo-Saxon novels. Trying to reproduce the way people actually spoke in a given historical period is impossible. That is as true for a novel set in the early medieval period as it is for any other century, with the possible exception of the twentieth century, which someone of my age can easily reproduce.
Whilst it’s obvious that the writer must strive for as much authenticity as possible in the dialogue, it’s less obvious how to go about it. There are clearly some restrictions. Only a poor author would attempt to introduce modern Western slang into a story set, say, in the eighth century.
My approach is to use modern everyday language in historical dialogue whilst avoiding anachronisms and glaring modern expressions. The avoidance off the former can be tricky; it’s not just a question of knowing when coffee was introduced into Europe, but also a question of weights and measures. Even time is tricky to convey—no digital watches in the seventh century! I’ve been known to explain a brief passage of time in terms of heartbeats. In my first novel The Purple Thread, I referred to an eighth-century sundial on a church wall. Its gnomon was no more than a stick in a hole, but the shadow cast marked the canonical hours so familiar to the monks and nuns, who marked Prime, Nones and vespers among other dservicesw ith the chiming of bells. Longer periods can reference the position of the sun in the sky, the length of shadows etc. small measurements could have been in barleycorns set end-to-end. Luckily, charters refer to land measurements and they can help achieve authenticity.
But back to dialogue: to contract or not? Personally, I tend towards contractions in informal speech. Why not? Jane Austen didn’t (sic!) in her novels whereas Charles Dickens did in Great Expectations. Just as in a modern novel, speech patterns can identify the social status of a character. A ceorl is hardly going to speak with the same inflection as an ealdorman.
So, what about vocabulary? My choice of era means I’m not in the slightest tempted by forsooths, mayhaps and perchances (fortunately!) but I can provide the illusion of historical authenticity by careful dosing of some contemporary words. These may be references to coinage, such as sceattas, or the aforementioned weights and measures, also weapons like the seax. The use of names also works, but I confess to irritation when a reviewer criticises me for using difficult names “I couldn’t get past the difficult names,” is a sentiment I’ve read once or twice. Come on, Deormund, Begiloc and Cynethryth aren’t so difficult to get your head around, especially if their story grabs you.
One concession I have made to my readership is to abandon my early tendency to give places their contemporary names. So now you will find Ipswich instead of Gippeswic. I can see that my earlier choice might have made it heavy going for readers. So, not to lose out on my sprinkling of authenticity, sometimes I’ll refer to a place and write that Ipswich was known to the locals as Gippeswic. In the end, it’s important to strike a balance between accuracy and understandability.
Then, what about the great modern trend towards political correctness? That leaves me seething. An editor once changed oarsmen into rowers because oarsmen was not inclusive enough. I’m not sure how many shield-maidens were rowing down the Trent to Gainsborough in the tenth century, but I’ll bet the Vikings didn’t give a damn about political correctness! I’m quite happy to let my historical characters espouse views that today might be considered controversial. But I made a conscious effort in my novel Wyrd of the Wolf to make my female main character worthy of admiration by my female readership. Reviews seem to indicate that I managed that successfully. Some of that was achieved in her conversations with her father, maid, and husband. Again, as a member of the Saxon nobility, she had to have a certain language style.
I hope that with the foregoing, I’m imparting how a little can go a long way. I would tend to avoid inserting authenticisms(to coin a word) in every paragraph, but to use them as occasional hints.
The Vikings were also fond of word combinations known as kennings, like sea-steed for ship or bear-hearted for brave, so I even invented some of my own.
Quite apart from the pleasure of dipping into figurative language, I’d suggest that a skilful metaphor or simile deliberately fashioned with awareness of epoch can also go some way to helping set the tone of a novel, also in dialogue.
I would like to conclude by saying that twenty Anglo-Saxon novels published do not make me an expert in writing dialogue in historical fiction. The views expressed here are strictly personal. I just hope that you found them interesting or, if I’ve been convincing, even helpful. Thanks for reading this far.
When I originally decided to focus my novel writing career on the so-called Dark Ages, I only partially knew what I was letting myself in for. As a Nottingham history student, I read Sir Frank Stenton’s authoritative contribution to the Oxford series. A browse through his pages and footnotes shows you how the best of historians struggles to piece together people/places/dates.
Many of these categories are subject to debate, even controversy.
The problem, of course, boils down to record-keeping. It is well known that the primary source of our knowledge of the period, loosely 500-1000 AD, are monastic writings, many of which occurred retrospectively, even centuries later. Otherwise, we rely on charters and archaeology. The latter, thankfully, has developed into such a science that we can rightly claim to be ripping open a veil that has shrouded the period for so long. One thing that we have learnt from the various excavations, and even the more honest metal detector hobbyists, is that the Dark Ages were illuminated by magnificent artistic craftsmen, working metal but also weaving silk.
My latest novel, my current work-in-progress, has provided me with more head-scratching than usual. I chose to write ‘A Tale of Two Vikings’—that’s the subtitle—about two of the many Norse-Irish involved in the diaspora following the Viking expulsion from Dublin in 902AD by the Irish. First, I wanted to use real historical figures, rather than invent two archetypal fictional characters. I have no regrets, even if the choice took me into a historical labyrinth made up of blind turns, dead ends and pitfalls.
Let’s take my main characters: Óttar mac Iarnkné (a.k.a. Óttar the Black) and Ragnall ua Ímair. Dark Ages? What was the formula above? People/places/dates? Right, so what did I find or not find? First, Óttar was the subject of historical debate because the records confuse him with his father and cousin. Some historians debate whether a seventy-year-old Viking could have led his men in battle in the early tenth century. Of course not! I sorted that out to my satisfaction and feel fairly sure that my Óttar was actually the man expelled in 902. Places? The same. What happened to him after 902? Obviously, we have conflicting versions. Some accounts are so different that for (date?) I could choose. In the same year, at the same time, he can be found contemporaneously as far afield as Brittany and Scotland! And what about Ragnall? Some historians have gone as far as to claim that he was the famous Rollo, who founded the Norman dynasty. Nonsense! Then there’s the small matter of his death. It’s recorded that as king of Jorvik (York) he died in 920, whereas serious historians make the case that he simply left York that year and went on to raid in the Loire Valley and elsewhere for another twenty years. I’ve made my choices and as I write this, instead of sitting down to write Chapter 26, with 80000 words behind me of the novel, entitled EXPULSION, (look out for it, hopefully later in 2022), The End in nigh!
What have I learnt from researching this novel? About the Dark Ages – so much! I’ve had to research economic history, the salt and silk trades; religious history, the conversion of Viking pagans; political history, the Caliphate versus Byzantium, including the components of Greek Fire! And that’s not all, the hardest part was piecing together chronology and trying to plot the story to answer the questions what happened to whom in this period? Not to mention, trying to combat stereotypes about Vikings. Hopefully, in my small writerly, not scholarly way, I hasten to add and underline that, I have achieved an entertaining, informative page-turner. That is my desire. Thanks for reading this.
According to historian Patrick Collinson, “It is possible for competent historians to come to radically different conclusions on the basis of the same evidence. Much of the evidence, is simply not available to us,” to this, I add, especially from the so-called Dark Ages, which means there are a lot of grey areas.
Happily, historical novelists can exploit those grey areas. That’s where our imagination fills in what might have happened behind and between recorded accounts. This is the case as I write my current work in progress about what happened to the Norse-Irish expelled from Dublin in 902 AD. To some extent I have to invent, especially the minor characters, relationships, and motives that history books can’t supply. The challenge—and enjoyment of writing historical novels lies in successfully weaving a story that meshes what’s known with what might have happened.
Storytellers can find sparks of inspiration everywhere—annal entries, a manuscript footnote, or, as I did for The Purple Thread, a letter. My research gives me a framework or skeleton, then, I can identify the spaces where the story can be woven to flesh out the bones. I actually enjoy the research that lies behind producing the manuscript, which requires passion for the topic because it has to sustain my interest while I write the book my characters and their stories deserve. The important thing is to understand what motivates my real or imagined characters.
The research gives an overview of the historical period, but what I enjoy most is trying to understand the daily life and work of ordinary people as they rub shoulders with the great and mighty characters who shape the events determining their life or death. This was a major factor underlying my St Cuthbert Trilogy, where the main characters emerge from a humble family. They are sequentially: a leatherworker, a horse breeder, a master mason; whereas, in the Sceapig Trilogy, they are successively a deer herder, an apple grower, and a warrior.
Of course, more research crops up along the way. In my latest work in progress, as yet untitled, I had the exact date from annals recounting the Viking raid on Tours in 903 AD, but the question arose, on 28 June, what phase was the moon in? I needed to be accurate and, to my relief, found a calendar that told me what I needed and wanted —a New Moon!
Apart from inspiration, research gives us the details that make the world of our story come to life. History books offer names, dates, and locations of events. But novels need characters and relationships, conflict and redemption, risks and rewards.
So, another of my writing pleasures is to consider the role of the gender much (though not entirely) neglected by historical records: the female. Whereas in the Dark Ages, we have detailed information about ladies from the upper classes, who often became nuns and almost by reflex, saints. I loved writing about my favourite, Saint Leoba in The Purple Thread, but even more so, about my more or less invented Cynethryth in Wyrd of the Wolf and its sequel In the Name of the Mother. More intriguing than the noble nuns, abbesses, prioresses and queens are the unknown women who populated Europe and managed to survive in conditions of war, pillage, famine, and various other adversities and still raised children and maintained the family. Surely, I ask myself, some of these courageous, unsung women deserve a major role in a novel. It’s hard for a male author to depict the female mentality, but I tried my best with Cynethryth, and I hope succeeded to an extent. Naturally, as a male writer, I’m drawn to major events and the dominant males who populate the pages of our history books, but whenever I can, I like to exalt the virtues of women who had the strength to battle on. Not all of them were positive characters as I hope I depicted accurately in Sward and Sword where the great Queen Emma displayed her Machiavellian traits to the full. Now that’s controversial! Many authors and historians see her as a positive character, whereas I portray her as something close to a witch!
The historical fiction writer is faced with the nigh on impossible task of entering into a world of contemporary values and philosophy. Mostly, I deal with times of social and political transition where change creates opportunities for my characters to show who they are as they deal with conflicts both internal and external. I want their responses to seem plausible, so it’s important to establish how gender, education, social class, belief systems, occupation, and other factors have shaped my characters because otherwise, readers will judge their behaviour by contemporary values.
Historical fiction is not the most popular literary genre, perhaps owing to the mental leap needed to enter into the spirit of bygone times. Those days were far from the consumerism of modern times. Can we readily empathise with the lords and ladies who changed places with the oxen to drag a cartload of stone uphill to the cathedral of Chartres under construction in a demonstration of faith? Can we project twenty-first century susceptibilities onto the past? Of course, not! Political correctness be damned!
I created a website built around novels set in the Anglo-Saxon period and producing ten novels, including a pair of two-book series and two trilogies. Almost exclusively positive reviews have heartened me, why then succumb to the temptation of deviating from a tried and tested genre?
The first signs of this capriciousness came with my time-travel novel Angenga. This waywardness is easy to explain because, of course, my main character Rick Hughes travels back in time to Anglo-Saxon Lincolnshire. I’m convinced that this novel has the best ending of all my works. It encouraged me to stray from the ‘straight and narrow’ and logically led to a desire to link the present day with the Anglo-Saxon period that I love so much.
The result was the Jake Conley Series of seven novels (so far). The way-in to the past was through the paranormal. After all, a normal person cannot step through a time portal to acquaint himself with sixth-century England. Jake does that and as the series progresses, acquires further supranormal attributes. Together with his acute detection instincts he is able to intervene on behalf of MI 5 to resolve many a threatening situation. Strictly from the writer’s point of view, being able to write about the twenty-first century was a release from the burden of thorough research implicit in creating historical fiction. It was fun having Jake chase around present-day England.
Somehow, a moment arrived after my seventh Jake Conley novel, The Beast of Exmoor, when I felt a strong desire to return to my Anglo-Saxon author roots. Partly, I felt that I could take Jake no further, but also, after kind reviews for my St Cuthbert Trilogy, I knew that my desire to write another trilogy had to be fulfilled, thus: The Sceapig Chronicles.
I love writing about ordinary characters plunged into historical circumstances that challenge them. By setting the trilogy on the small Isle of Sheppey, I risked limiting my possibilities, but no, the Viking onslaught and the quality of the main characters meant they were brought inevitably into contact with great events and important personages. I enjoy writing my tales, but never more than in this trilogy. It is delightful to create a character and follow his family where each generation is met with a different challenge. How satisfying then, that a faithful reader, in a 5-star review of Sea Wolves (Book 2) wrote: The author's knowledge of the time period and his research into the Anglo-Saxon way of life shines through the pages of the book, so much that at times, I forgot I was reading a fictional novel, the realism was so convincing. In a private message he told me, ‘I think Asculf is my favourite of all your characters that I’ve read so far.’ Hurray! My objective achieved and thanks to him and all those who choose my books.
Why then, having just completed the trilogy so positively, should I change again? Perversity? Caprice? Boredom? No, none of the aforementioned. As a writer, it’s a pleasure to read other authors’ works, even outside my own genre. Also, given that my Publisher brings us together on our own site in Facebook—you are cordially invited to visit the Next Chapter Street Team page—I have made some superb ‘virtual’ author friends. Naturally, I am drawn to read their books. One name only, for now, is Brian L. Porter, whose Mersey Mystery stories I can heartily recommend. Not only did his novels hook me as a reader, but inspired me as a writer, leading me to deviate once more.
I had thrown around an idea for some years, asking myself, ‘wouldn’t this make a great mystery novel?’ Afraid to begin on a genre so far from mine, I approached Brian with it. His encouragement and that of my publisher led to The Quasimodo Killings, currently contracted with Next Chapter and due for publication in the New Year. (Happy 2022 everyone!) This book introduced me to the art of the clever twist, in which Brian so excels. The underlying idea to this mystery is wildly original, but if you are intrigued, please be patient – out soon!
So far, so good. But my next attempt at straying ended on Boxing Day 2021. Believe it or not, my latest work began as a joke with the by now famous Brian. He has a great sense of humour and teased me with why don’t you write a science-fiction novel. I immediately thought, ‘I’ll show you, mate!’ and so, The Remnant was born. In this pestilence-stricken era, it came naturally that aliens might provoke the Apocalypse by means of releasing a deadly virus on humankind. They annihilate the Earth’s inhabitants for the good of humanity. To understand this paradox, you’ll have to read the novel—that is, if my publisher isn’t fed up of his historical novel author being such a delinquent! I submitted it yesterday, so no guarantees that he’ll like it. Watch this space!
A Happy New Year to you all and may 2022 be so much better for everyone!
My friendship with Paolo Valente dates from 1986 when he, who is now bilingual, was learning English and I was teaching the language. He was one of my best students, so it was natural to socialise with him: it helped my Italian and his English. Now, Paolo is capable of reading my novels. I’m honoured that he enjoys them. I have suggested to my publishers, who have enthusiastically accepted the idea, that Paolo’s ‘Viking music’ be used in my Sceapig trilogy audiobooks. Book 1 is The Runes of Victory; Book 2 is Sea Wolves and Book 3 is as yet untitled as I’m writing it. In the near future all three will be released in audiobook format. But enough about me. Let’s hear what Paolo has to say:
The passion for the Vikings history goes back to my school years. I’ve always been fascinated by their strong, courageous warriors. Recently, I started following the History Channel series The Vikings and I really enjoyed Ragnar’s family saga but what really caught my attention was the music of the soundtrack. Recently, I have also read several of John Broughton’s historical novels, many of which cover the eighth- to tenth-century Viking incursions. Most recently, his trilogy set on the Isle of Sheppey captivated my attention: I couldn’t put down The Runes of Victory and I’m looking forward to the sequels.
I thought that I would like to create something similar with my own interpretation. Of course, this cannot be real Viking music as I don’t have their original instruments, but I wanted to create something as close as possible to the original feeling.
Thanks to modern technology, I managed to reproduce what my imagination of moments of Viking life suggested to me: battles, seafaring, conquest of new lands or whatever. Whether I succeeded in transmitting this message through my music, I’m not sure, but certainly it gave me that feeling of when you close your eyes you plunge into the action. I hope it carries over to the listeners.
As for the technology I use, first, a midi controller with Ableton live for the rhythm parts and then a mini-synthesiser for the solos. This represents a progression in my musical career, which began as a Blues musician playing guitar and harmonica to move on to more generic performances including singer-songwriter. I have performed solo or in bands, my first group was called The Midnight Ramblers. Among other things, I organised several blues festivals in my home town, which involved renowned international musicians and achieved national coverage in the Press.
Listen to Paolo's Viking music below:
The Importance of the Senses in Writing
Since the human being has five senses (if not six), to describe the feelings, sentiments and sensations of the characters is obligatory for the author. Showing not telling them is the art. If the writer can enter into the reactions of his characters it is job done.
How we react to the stimuli of art and music would be a good example. I try to capture my feelings and transpose them to my characters.
For the historical novelist this becomes more difficult since he has to contend with the changes wrought by time. I would like to illustrate what I mean by drawing from my first novel The Purple Thread.
In this novel, the main character, Begiloc, a British warrior tramps around the Europe of his day escorting Christian missionaries. On his journey he carries a hearpe with him. This instrument was more like a lyre than a harp and given that he crafted it himself, would have been rudimentary. I have borrowed an example from You Tube and all credit should go to Mr Peter Horn, a re-enactor. Begiloc would have sounded like the video above.
Later in the novel, Begiloc’s best friend, Meryn, now blinded by his enemies, finds salvation in music and becomes the Chant Master in a monastery just when the Gregorian chanting is changing from Galician to Roman. What does that mean? Let’s ask Meryn; here is an extract from the novel:
“The difference between the Gallican and the Roman chant is the former is more florid ...”
‘Has he heard me? Is he mad?’
“... like this – ah – aah –aah – on each syllable in an upward pitch where— ”
“Damn the Gallican chant! Did you hear me? I said I fulfilled my oath.”
The blind man sighed and stood. Crossing the room, he groped for a small box, removing Talwyn’s
brooch and holding it out to his friend.
“Take it!” he said, voice sorrowful, “this is a constant reminder of my sinful past. Indeed, of the
heaviest sin blackening my soul.” His tone changed to one of reproval, “Had you come but once to find me, I should have released you from your vow.”
‘What! He has gone mad! Why? Milo stole your sight, bedded other men’s wives, virgins! Had men castrated, plundered the Church ...’ Begiloc ground his teeth.
Now let’s listen to a fine example of the Galician Chant interpreted nowadays (scroll down to listen).
It is not just music that the novelist can exploit. What about art? In our descriptions the characters can find themselves in the presence of great art. How do they feel? Let’s turn again to Begiloc when he finds himself, to his amazement, summoned to Rome to the greatest cathedral in the world at the time: St John in Lateran. How does he feel?
To Begiloc’s left hung a painting, a picture of Christ on wood. Convinced the brown eyes of the icon were studying him, he could not detach his gaze but the work also enthralled his companions. In an awed voice, Boniface said, “The Acheiropoieton. The word means ‘made without hands’.”
“How can it be?” Begiloc asked.
“They say St Luke painted it with the help of an angel.”
“Could be. I don’t like the way it stares at me. It knows I’m a sinner.”
Averting his gaze, he refused to look in that direction.
For the warrior, an eternity passed before the summons into the presence of Gregory III. Willibald stood smiling as they entered. The Pontifex rose from his bowl-shaped throne and they knelt before him. The heart of Begiloc pounded and he wished himself anywhere but here.
Isn’t the Acheiropoieton a little disturbing? Just look at those eyes!
So, to conclude, I believe there are opportunities everywhere to describe the senses. I have chosen two, but what about the smell of freshly-baked bread? The scent of cherry blossom? The caress of a soft hand on the cheek? The opportunities are endless to take the reader into the sensations undergone by our characters. We authors have only to set them up.
We are used to the Roman month names that go from January to December. But long before these names were adopted into English, Germanic calendar that had been brought to England from mainland Europe by Anglo-Saxon settlers was used to divide the year into 12 (or sometimes 13) lunar months. The earliest and most detailed account we have of this pre-Christian calendar comes from Bede, an 8th century monk and scholar based in Jarrow in northeast England, who outlined the old Anglo-Saxon months of the year in his work De temporum ratione, or “The Reckoning of Time,” in AD 725.
January, Bede explained, corresponds to an Anglo-Saxon month known as Æftera Geola, or “After Yule”—the month, quite literally, after Christmas.
February was Sōlmōnath, a name that apparently derived from an Old English word for wet sand or mud, sōl; according to Bede, it meant “the month of cakes,” when ritual offerings of savory cakes and loaves of bread would be made to ensure a good year’s harvest. It’s plausible that the name Sōlmōnath might have referred to the cakes’ sandy, gritty texture.
March was Hrēðmonath to the Anglo-Saxons, and was named in honor of a little-known pagan fertility goddess named Hreða, or Rheda. Her name eventually became Lide in some southern dialects of English, and the name Lide or Lide-month was still being used locally in parts of southwest England until as recently as the 19th century. April corresponds to the Anglo-Saxon Eostremonath, which took its name from another mysterious pagan deity named Eostre. She is thought to have been a goddess of the dawn who was honoured with a festival around the time of the spring equinox, which, according to some accounts, eventually changed into our festival of Easter. Oddly, no account of Eostre is recorded anywhere else outside of Bede’s writings—but it seems unlikely that Bede would have invented a fictitious pagan festival in order to account for a Christian one.
May was Thrimilce, or “the month of three milkings,” when livestock were often so well fed on fresh spring grass that they could be milked three times a day.
June and July were together known as Liða, an Old English word meaning “mild” or “gentle,” which referred to the period of warm, seasonable weather either side of Midsummer. To differentiate between the two, June was sometimes known as Ærraliða, or “before-mild,” and July was Æfteraliða, or “after-mild;” in some years a “leap month” was added to the calendar at the height of the summer, which was Thriliða, or the “third-mild.”
August was Weodmonath or the “plant month.” After that came September, or Hāligmonath, meaning “holy month,” when celebrations and religious festivals would be held to celebrate a successful summer’s crop.
October was Winterfylleth, or the “winter full moon,” because, as Bede explained, winter was said to begin on the first full moon in October.
November was Blōtmonath, or “the month of blood sacrifices.” The purpose of this late autumnal sacrifice might have been propitious, but it’s likely that any older or infirm livestock that seemed unlikely to see out bad weather ahead would be killed both as a stockpile of food, and as an offering for a safe and mild winter.
And December, finally, was Ærra Geola or the month “before Yule,” after which Æftera Geola would come round again.
Use of the Germanic calendar dwindled as Christianity—which brought with it the Roman Julian Calendar—was introduced more widely across England in the Early Middle Ages. It quickly became the standard, so that by the time that Bede was writing he could dismiss the “heathen” Germanic calendar as the product of an “olden time.”
INSIGHT INTO INSPIRATION
The inspiration behind writing a Saint Cuthbert trilogy came from recognition of the enduring memory of the golden age of Northumbrian monasticism. There are statues and re-enactments and even reproduction villages in the north-east of England in the twenty-first century. We are talking about a legacy of over a thousand years. The saints concerned are especially St Aidan, St Cuthbert and St Bede.
I would like to draw your attention (please click below for link) to this remarkable initiative:
Returning to my inspiration, I began thinking not just of the impact of Saint Cuthbert in life, but also the subsequent effect his life had on successive generations of Anglo-Saxons and indeed beyond into the Norman period. Therefore, inspired by the incredible journey undertaken on foot by devoted monks who tramped around the north of England carrying the saint's remains on their shoulders in a heavy coffin for a total of 600 miles - imagine that! I wrote my second of the trilogy entitled The Horse-thegn. I like to include aspects of daily life in my novels and here, I deal with the importance of horses to the Anglo-Saxons, whereas in the first of the series Heaven in a Wild Flower, featuring Cuthbert in life, I write about a leather-worker and a scribe.
Talking about scribes, I bless the social media for allowing me to get to know a fabulous modern-day Scottish scribe and re-enactor, Dawn Burgoyne. This incredibly patient lady is a brilliant interpreter of medieval calligraphy and I have the good fortune to have her contributing exquisite frontispieces to my novels.
Currently, she is preparing me an illuminated extract from Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Since these things take time and enormous patience, I contacted Dawn before I even have a title for Book 3 and am only on Chapter eleven. Students of Anglo-Saxon history will understand the incredible importance to our knowledge of the times the Venerable Bede contributes even allowing for monastic bias. But he, also, like Cuthbert, had an enduring effect on subsequent generations. His Historia inspired an Anglo-Saxon monk, Alwyn, to leave his abbey in Evesham and traipse up to Jarrow to restore the former glory of the devastated monastery. He attempted this for Melrose and Monkwearmouth, too, and indirectly, Whitby. So, as ever, attempting to capture daily life, I write about the mason entrusted to recreate the destroyed churches and cloisters. It is fascinating researching the medieval master mason's methods and tools. So, what better frontispiece for this untitled book than an extract from Bede faithfully reprroduced by the patient and talented Dawn?
Here's a promise for you. As soon as Dawn consigns it to me, I'll publish it on this Blog and when my brain snaps into action and I have a title, I'll let you know. Till then, it's back to the lime kiln and the straight-edge!
Below: Portrait of Bede writing, from a 12th-century copy of his Life of St Cuthbert (British Library, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r)T
WHY THE OLD SAXON?
My father used to tell a story, probably apocryphal, about the Second World War when he served as a stretcher bearer in the RAMC. A friendly American soldier approached him,
“Hi buddy! Where are you from?”
Father, touched to the quick: “No, pal, Little Old England!”
So, what has this to do with my latest novel – John the Old Saxon?
Well, ‘old’ does not refer to John’s age although for the ninth/tenth century he lived to a ripe old age. No, it refers to Old Saxony, which term King Alfred’s contemporaries used to refer to the German Saxony to distinguish it from ‘New Saxony’, that is, Wessex. Middle-aged when he arrived in England, John, therefore, was an Old Saxon.
In the dark past, some figures like Alfred shine brightly, thanks also to available documentation such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for which that king was responsible. Yet, he was surrounded by figures who move around him like shades seen through the almost impenetrable shroud of Time. One of these was the undoubtedly influential scholarly figure of John the Old Saxon. Such is his obscurity (or self-effacement?) that even his identity and actual burial site is subject to discussion among historians.
As a historical novelist I have enjoyed the privilege of using my imagination to fill some gaps in our knowledge. Hopefully, there is a significant amount of truth in my efforts. I hope to bring to life John the Old Saxon for my readers.
REFLECTIONS ON ORIGINALITY AND AUTHENTICITY
Towards the end of my latest novel, my beta reader who follows me chapter by chapter made a comment that set me thinking. He said, that episode reminds me of the Murder in the Cathedral.
Yes, except that the incident concerned happened some 275 years earlier! Which brings me to my point. Upon listening to the audiobook of my Perfecta Saxonia, an American troll gave it a 1-star review – (all the others are 5-star) claiming that it was plagiaristic- a poor copy of Bernard Cornwell. Much as I like and respect Bernard’s books, I would never knowingly copy him and I’m very careful about such things. All my work is original unless I quote. What the American confused was a person writing about the same historical events: the poor chap couldn’t distinguish the difference of plot and style evidently.
But I wish to make the point that creating an original Dark Ages novel that has not been well dealt with by someone else is tricky. When I finished my St Cuthbert Trilogy, I had half a mind to have a go at writing about the fascinating Saint Dunstan – that proved a non-starter because it had just been done extremely well and was published last year. No problem, I’ve found another avenue for a new trilogy, but the fact is that so many Dark Age personages have been covered. Here I could write a long list of characters I’ve wanted to write about but rejected on the grounds that they’ve been well covered by others – first among these the Lady of the Mercians – Aethelflaed – a fascinating woman.
Maybe one of the problems of originality when writing about the Anglo-Saxon period is the lack of documentary material. We have The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Bede to guide us but that’s about it and even they are not necessarily without bias. The answer is to break away from great personages as much as possible: my recent work has centred on more humble characters like a leather worker, a scribe, a stone mason and so forth. They encounter the great, literally, as my scribe-scholar rubs shoulder with King Alfred in my latest novel.
I was amused by a recent excellent review, where the reviewer touched on the humility of the two main characters in The Master of the Chevron because while it’s true that we know little or nothing about the first master mason of Durham Cathedral, we know a lot about Prior Thurgot, thanks also to an almost contemporary account of his life. It meant a lot to me that I had been able to introduce this exceptional monk to a modern-day reader who probably had never heard of him. I think that the fun of writing about the Anglo-Saxons is trying to travel back in time mentally to capture the life in those days as much as possible. I fear that attempts at originality can be dangerous in terms of respecting authenticity. But worrying about that helps me to be a better writer. We all have to deal with trolls apparently. I’m lucky to only have had one!