A crude illustration from a 15th century Welsh language version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s highly influential Historia Regum Britanniae
The decision to write a trilogy set in the so-called Dark Ages was always going to be complicated. I should know as I’ve already written two of them set in Anglo-Saxon England. As if the task needed exasperating, I chose to write about ninth-century Wales. My interest was piqued by a simple curiosity. If the Vikings colonised Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and England, why didn’t they manage to do the same in Wales?
It is actually a fun question to answer because the question poses so many sub-questions. Finding an answer is complicated because the darkness of Dark Ages Wales is, choose your black metaphor here, darker than the rest because Wales was off the beaten track and as such, provides us with less written and archaeological testimony. Written? Let’s take for example, one of the main characters in my ongoing Book 1 of the trilogy, Rhodri the Great. Great? Well contemporaries didn’t give him that title. How reliable can it be if it was attached to his name more than 400 years later by a Welsh writer? It’s like saying that in 2422 a historian will decide to call Queen Elizabeth II, Elizabeth the Great. The difference is that my hypothetical historian, barring a cataclysm, will have a mass of material to draw on to back up his statement.
Researching material about Rhodri, I discovered that apart from the skeletal facts regarding his reign, the richest source happens to be a Welsh historian from pre-1923 period: John Edward Lloyd MA. Subsequently, serious scholars have tended to lean on his work. Unless, of course, you consider the Annales Cambriae, a complex of Latin chronicles compiled or derived from diverse sources at St David’s in Dyfed, Wales. The earliest is a 12th-century presumed copy of a mid-10th-century original; later editions were compiled in the 13th century.
So, that’s the minefield for me to tiptoe through and I’m not complaining because seeking some answers can be as enjoyable as it is frustrating. What about the sub-questions? Did the Vikings not colonise because Wales couldn’t provide fertile agricultural land? False. Wales contains within itself a similar variety of landscapes to what is found elsewhere in the British Isles. It contains mountains, hilly country, as well as low-lying ground more suitable for farming. Another thing Wales has in common with the other lands of the British Isles is miles and miles of coastline (1680 mile to be exact). The fact that there were no large tracts of Welsh soil conquered by the Vikings is not due to the unsuitability of the land. Evidence points to peaceful settlement and coexistence with the native Welsh. The Vikings came and plundered; we know that from contemporary Scandinavian written sources. The Norsemen called Wales Bretland: hence the provisional title for my trilogy – The Bretland Trilogy. They also established various place names in Wales, such as Haverfordwest, Swansea, and Anglesey, which were in the coastal or low-lying areas. So, we can say that the answer to my first sub-question is that they didn’t fail to colonise Wales because the farmland was unsuitable.
Timber? The Vikings needed timber for their longships and to build their houses. During the early Middle Ages, Wales was rich in timber. There was much more forested land than there is now. So, that slams another door shut.
What about slaves then? The Vikings were very active in a slave trade that spanned the breadth of Europe and influenced slave markets beyond. But the Welsh took an active part in this trade, supplying slaves for the Scandinavian middle men from their own hinterlands and from the lands of the Saxons. In southern Wales, Swansea and Cardiff provided markets for these deals. Another blind alley.
What about lack of natural resources other than timber? Excavations at Dinas Emrys in north Wales and at Dinas Powys in the south indicate that blacksmiths worked in iron acquired from local ore. (Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages, 49). In addition to iron ore, there were also gold, copper, and lead mines in Wales. There was even a gold mine at Dolaucothi. Wales was not without mineral resources. They would have been attractive to the Vikings. So, there goes another possibility.
The most glaring reason had to be geography. Look at a map of Europe. Put Wales in relation to Scandinavia and you see at once that it was inconvenient to the Vikings: out of the way. As Vikings from Denmark cross the North Sea, the first land they come to is England. If the raiders are coming from Norway then Scotland is closest. Coming from Norway and not stopping in Scotland, continuing around to the west, through the Hebrides, they come to Ireland before Wales. For the Danes who didn’t want to stop in England, they would have to sail through the English Channel. The rich monasteries of northern France would have proved alluring.
The question of why the Vikings didn’t colonise Wales became so intriguing at this stage that I felt the answer had to lie in the Welsh people themselves. Could I write a historical novel about it? you bet! Not one, but three – I hope!
Rhodri ap Merfyn, also known as Rhodri Mawr (the Great) came to be king of Gwynedd in the mid-ninth century. By the end of his reign, he ruled most of Wales through a combination of diplomatic marriage and conquest. He was a strong leader who was able to bring most of Wales into a united front against the Vikings. He scored a significant victory over the Vikings in 856. So, there’s Book 1 for me with the provisional title Rhodri’s Furies, but let me not get ahead of myself. After all, I’ve only written the first 35000 words and am about to start Chapter 11 as I write this. I have identified the main characters of Books 2 and 3, but as yet, there is no outline for either.
In conclusion, isn’t it curious how concepts for novels can arise out of curiosity? Unanswered questions need answers. Mine is a search conducted by blundering around in the Dark Ages – by a man in a windowless cellar without a candle!
The American engineer and magnate Henry T. Ford once famously said history is bunk. He spent many years under attack for this, including in a Chicago libel case against The Tribune. This unfortunate turn of phrase might have set me against Americans in general, but I know better. An American president, Harry S. Truman said, there is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know. Apart from the wisdom in those words, one of my favourite all-time historical novelists is an American: Gore Vidal. He wrote a wonderful novel titled Julian about the last apostate Roman emperor.
It takes courage to write over 400 pages on imperial Rome in the modern literary marketplace, throw in ancient philosophy, old gods and you’d think it might be a cure for insomnia, but Vidal is a master of storytelling and he wrote a compelling biography, full of gripping dialogue and a plot full of twists and turns.
American literary critic, D. Driftless wrote: “Julian is a compelling, albeit unflattering, look at Christianity’s rise as a world religion during the 4th century, as seen through the eyes of one of its most prominent opponents. I strongly recommend it to those who’ve enjoyed Vidal’s other work, but would recommend Burr or Lincoln for those who are new to his historical novels, as they show him at the top of his form and are more accessible to the modern American reader.”
I make no apology for digressing about Gore Vidal - the pleasure is mine! But I will return to my argument. I firmly believe that historians supply us with the facts, historical novelists with the empathy. Hence, why Vidal’s style of historical fiction is superior to traditional history writing, making for a more entertaining and memorable product, while still relying on the actual facts. As a writer of historical fiction, I’m trying to achieve something better than a simple reconstruction of history. I’m attempting to create an immersive story that brings interesting characters to life while simultaneously capturing something essential, not only about the historical setting, but also about the deeper truths of human existence. Historical fiction reflects the mistakes and triumphs of those who have gone before us, showing how events affected people by personalizing them, making them resonant and emotional, in individual stories.
Seen from this perspective, history is a window into our future. It’s an inescapable fact that people are creatures of habit. Therefore, they live their lives in a series of patterns and reactions. By studying these patterns in the lives of the great, but also the common man from the past, we can predict the future. We can prepare ourselves and even take a stand now.Historical novels don’t just tell us what happened; they make us feel. They create empathy for what other people went through in different times, in a way that is divorced from our own political situation today.
We can better understand where female emancipation – the suffragettes – came from if we’ve read Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen teaches us about an age where a woman’s economic survival depended on whom she married or if she married at all. It’s hard for me to imagine a modern feminist who hasn’t read Austen! There are some amazing novels about the nascent Nazi Germany and I’m convinced that however powerful autobiographies and biographies are in the right hands, there’s nothing as emotionally powerful as the prose of a skilled historical novelist. We can learn from being transported by words not to be transported in cattle trucks! That is, if we learn the lessons of history.
A new area of archaeological technology so fascinates me that I’m thinking of writing a novel based on it. I’m only at a vague stage of conceiving the novel but I’d like to write about what I’ve discovered in this blog. I’m talking about drones and satellites.
Remote sensing is the process of detecting and monitoring the physical characteristics of an area by measuring its reflected and emitted radiation at a distance. (This can be done from a satellite or aircraft). Technologically advanced cameras collect remotely sensed images, which help researchers "sense" things about the Earth.
Satellite images help scientists find and map long-lost rivers, roads, and cities, and discern archaeological features in conflict zones too dangerous to visit. England, luckily, isn’t one of those tormented areas, but has a fair share of DMVs (Deserted Medieval Villages) that were abandoned owing to enclosures, famines, disease etc.
Satellite archaeology is an emerging field of archaeology that uses high resolution satellites with thermal and infrared capabilities to pinpoint potential sites of interest in the earth around a meter or so in depth. Obviously, satellite images can be used to detect, to acquire an inventory, and to prioritise archaeological information in a rapid, accurate, and quantified manner. Years of old-style field walking could actually miss what is obvious from the air, although an expert who knows what he’s looking for can still produce ground-level revelations.
One of the newest archaeological aids is the drone. Drones provide a useful low-level aerial platform for recording historic buildings, monuments, archaeological sites and landscapes. They can carry a wide variety of sensors including cameras, multi/hyperspectral imaging units, and even laser scanners. This technology is clearly beyond the means of the amateur enthusiast, but a drone fitted with a camcorder is attainable and will allow sleuthing even with a modest expenditure.
Many academic papers have been written in recent years about this technology. Readers here might be interested in a book that I’m happy to recommend that contains reference to several positive technological experiences including drones: Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History edited by Helena Hamerow.
Moving my focus away from Britain, archaeologists have discovered 500 previously unknown Mesoamerican sites in Mexico hidden in plain sight using laser technology.
Using laser pulses tied to a GPS system, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR, technology) took topographical readings to create a three-dimensional map of a 30,000-square-mile area around eastern Tabasco. When archaeologists analysed the data, they found evidence of 478 sites that would have been part of precolonial settlements between about 1400 B.C. and 1000 A.D.
“The study foreshadows the future for archaeology as LiDAR reveals ancient architecture at an unprecedented scale that will reach into remote and heavily vegetated regions the world over,” Robert Rosenswig, an archaeologist at the University of Albany-SUNY, wrote in an accompanying article for Nature, calling LiDAR “revolutionary for archaeology.”
Returning to the U.K., an aerial mapping project conducted by the National Trust on the Wallington Estate in Northumberland, England, just uncovered 120 new archaeological features. The organization began the project to help draw up plans for planting 75,000 British native trees on the 13-hectare estate. (The trust aims to plant 20 million trees by 2030 to help combat climate change.) Creating a 3D digital map of the landscape allowed the trust to identify the site of historic woodlands that had been cleared in the mid-18th century, as well as former farming systems. The oldest prehistoric sites on the state identified through the LiDAR scans date back to as early as 2000 B.C.
As I mentioned above, there are many academic papers relating to a vast amount of new information about our hidden past. Unfortunately, I cannot reproduce the aerial images here as they are all copyrighted, but many of the said articles contain them. I find it fascinating and hope that my research might lead me to write a gripping new archaeological-historical novel. Who knows?
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.