The Trials And Tribulations Of A First Time Novelist

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At present I have one book well and truly finished (Shadow of the Raven). It has been professionally edited, and is now published on Amazon. I’m currently working on the final sections of Book 2 of the trilogy (Pit of Vipers) and hope to have that on Amazon before too long.

I have to admit that my writing speed has improved with Book 2. Shadow of the Raven seemed to take forever: I wrote and rewrote, deleted and saved, or totally scrapped so much of it. I can say with all honesty that my ‘Deleted’ file is almost a novel’s worth in itself!

But for Book 2, much of the basic research into the historical events and everyday life in the mid ninth century has already been done, and my writing style, storyline and characters have taken shape. So I feel much more confident in getting my ideas down this time around. That is not to say that the writing now just flows effortlessly to the computer keys with every scene. With some sections it does, but there are many new settings, situations and characters to be described and developed in Book 2 – and, of course, hopefully made to sound interesting – if not totally intriguing!

For experienced authors, many of the things I’ve agonised over are not an issue. Though I found little difficulty with viewpoint and character depiction, the development of the plot was a different matter. I knew what my story was about and what I wanted to include, but I soon learned that the story was not the same as the plot. Keeping the right balance between action scenes, emotional and humorous ones – or even those just necessary to move the story along – needs detailed planning, as well as careful consideration of the ‘show don’t tell’ element. Thankfully, I do love writing dialogue, and find it a wonderful way of ‘showing’ the many facets of characters.

Please bear in mind that I’m still new to the novel writing business. I have no doubt that many of you out there could easily write pages on the points I’m trying to make here. What I’m really saying is that novel writing is a long, slow learning process, and at the beginning I think it’s normal to struggle with the intricacies of the job. Me . . . well, I even whittled about word count, for goodness sake!

With regard to the latter, many of the scenes in my ‘Deleted’ file are there by virtue of my own editing once the book was finished. On consideration of the length of my original manuscript (which had grown to become a great monstrosity of a thing!) I set about deleting scenes I thought unnecessary to the continuation of the plot. For me, that was hard, since everything I had written was there because I liked it – and had taken time to do in the first place. Still, the over-long tale had to be shortened somehow.

But I love writing and no matter what ‘trials and tribulations’ I meet along the way, I know I’ll persevere. I have several ideas for future novels, but right now I’m focusing on getting my Sons of Kings trilogy finished.


I’d like to share one of the deleted sections here. It would have featured towards the end of what is now Chapter 4 of Shadow of the Raven. It’s a battle scene – something I really wasn’t looking forward to doing in the first place – in which King Aethelwulf of Wessex defeats the marauding Dane, Rorik.

Rorik’s raids play a vital part to the future events of the story, but I found that by removing the entire chapter in which this scene featured, I not only saved words but was able to move the main plot along quicker. The results of the battle are revealed indirectly in the following chapter. I still have qualms over whether I should have left it in. Anyway, here’s the scene:


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The Battle of Aclea

An owl screeched its alarm, flapping from a low branch to glide like a spectre between the oaks of the woodland behind. One of the horses whinnied in response to the harsh cry and King Aethelwulf prayed the sound would not carry to the enemy below.

Entrusting their mounts to a handful of men until the battle was done, Aethelwulf and his hundred warriors crouched at the top of a gentle slope, taut as bowstrings; shields slung across backs, two or three javelins held inside each, and swords hanging from baldrics. Beyond the slope, the shadowy plain stretched for less than a mile before rising to the wooded ridge. Along the foot of the ridge, remnants of watch fires threw muted light on the edge of the camp. Aethelwulf hoped the guards would be too drowsy at this hour to be vigilant.

The eastern sky was paling fast; at sunrise the camp would rouse, the element of surprise lost. Scanning the top of the ridge, praying that Osmund and Aethelbald’s men were waiting, he raised his arm, the signal to advance down the slope.

Stooping low they moved in silence, crouching at intervals behind scrubby gorse and bramble, panted breaths evidence of heightened tensions as inevitable combat neared. The shouted alarm came as they moved across the open ground in the growing light of imminent dawn, the camp now less than a hundred yards away. The Danes swarmed from their tents, howling to their gods; hurling spears and rocks at their rapidly nearing assailants.

‘Shield wall!’ Aethelwulf yelled.

The manoeuvre into the tight wall was instant; two rows deep, shields overlapping, left sides over right. At Aethelwulf’s side in the centre of the front line the standard bearer hoisted the Wessex banner, the great white dragon on its backdrop of red, eliciting jeers and hammering of spears on shields from the Danes, now lined in their own defensive wall barely twenty five yards away. But, as Aethelwulf had hoped, few wore body armour: shields and helmets were all the late alarm had afforded.

The drumming on shields abruptly ceased and an ominous silence pervaded the plain. Warriors stood rigid, muscles flexed for the opening strike.

The first spears whistled as the two lines strove to weaken each other’s defences. Most flew overhead. Some glanced off shields; some slammed into them and held fast. A few struck unresistant flesh. Men screamed and fell.

And the gaps in the shieldwalls reclosed.

Gradually the missiles lessened, then ceased, and Aethelwulf moved forward a pace, his eyes fixed on a bull-necked figure standing prominently in the enemy front line. ‘So… the straggling remnants of Rorik’s warband think to challenge the might of Wessex!’ he mocked. ‘Naked raven chicks are no match for the clutch of the dragon!’

Rorik stepped out and threw open his arms. ‘We quake in our boots at the prattle of a deranged old man!’ The Danes wailed in mock terror. ‘Look closely at what you face, great king. Naked of armour we may be, but we are double your number. Yet you think to better us!’ He threw back his head and roared, the sound a chilling mix of derisive laugh and snarl. ‘Our chicks enjoyed pecking the eyes from your Saxon whores and butchering the curs you call men! And your gold will serve us well.’

Aethelwulf snorted. ‘Your murderous hordes have gained no more than a few captives and a modicum of plunder from poor homesteads. Saxon gold will never be within your thieving grasp.’

Rorik seethed, Aethelwulf’s denigration too accurate to deny. ‘Say your prayers to your god old man. Your mangy carcasses will feed the buzzards!’

The clash of colliding armies defiled the peace of the dawning day. Weapons thrust through gaps between shields, stabbing and slashing at legs, feet and faces, maiming exposed flesh and bringing men down, creating crucial breaches in the enemy wall. Danes dropped like swatted flies, despite outnumbering the Saxons two to one, their lack of body armour costing them dear. Aethelwulf fought with the vigour of a warrior half his age, his focus on Rorik. But gradually the craven jarl retreated behind his men, safe from Wessex swords.

Then Osmund’s hundred men were careering across the plain. Panicked, too many Danes turned to counter the oncoming wave, ignoring the continued frontal assault. Beset from front and rear the already depleted Danish force stood little chance and Saxon warriors showed no mercy. The battle was soon over.

Shouts alerted Aethelwulf to the group of riders fleeing from the empty camp towards the Roman road, Rorik’s swarthy bulk in their midst. But Saxon mounts had not yet been retrieved, and Aethelwulf could do no more than watch the riders fade into the distance. Tracking them down would be futile. Though he knew Rorik would head eventually for Thanet, Aethelwulf could not spare the men to cover the myriad, minor tracks he might take.

They buried their dead with Christian prayers and full honour; those men had given their lives for Wessex. Enemy corpses were relieved of their spoils and left where they’d fallen, a feast for the scavengers.

‘Gather their horses,’ Aethelwulf yelled. ‘Take whatever we can make use of from the tents, then fire them. Then we head home.’


Whether or not I did the right thing in deleting this, it’s too late now. The book is published. But I’ve brought attention to it here simply to add weight to what I said about the long, slow learning path towards becoming an experienced and, hopefully, good novelist. In this instance, deleting a great chunk of this chapter rid me of 1,526 words (the battle scene itself is 879 words) but at the expense of causing me some pangs of regret – not to mention annoyance at myself for wasting time writing it in the first place.

*****

For The Love Of Writing…

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I know I’m not telling anyone anything new when I say that the writing of any work of fiction, whether novel or short story, requires both knowledge and creativity, not to mention a lot of hard work.

In the words of American writer, Dennis R. Miller:

 “Writing a novel is like traveling the universe on foot.”

And from Samuel Johnson:

“What is written without effort is generally read without pleasure.”

And this quote about writing from David Eddings, who, sadly, died in 2009, always makes me smile:

baby elephant quote

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We all gain a considerable amount of knowledge during our journeys through life, but for writing about places, situations, characters and time periods beyond our own little boxes, there’s always the good old Internet! Failing that, there are scores of books for sale out there on every subject imaginable – many in cheap bookstores, charity shops, second hand bookstores or car boot or garage sales. And in my experience, most librarians are more than willing to point us in the right direction. In short, there’s really no excuse to shirk the research, whatever the genre being written.

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But for some genres more than others – and I’m talking about fiction here, not non-fiction, for which research must be a mammoth task – thorough research is vital: historical fiction, naturally, being uppermost on my mind, with crime and law enforcement close on its heels (all that forensic stuff!). Anything involving medical issues is another one.

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Creativity in novel writing is also vital. Without it, the story would be flat and lifeless and characters very dull. In the words of Jack Kerouac WD: 

“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.”

In other words, writing should appeal to the senses, and we should remember to ‘show, don’t tell’.

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I’ve included a short scene from my book, Shadow of the Raven, here. It comes fairly close to the beginning of the story, and is intended as an introduction to young Eadwulf’s father, King Beorhtwulf of Mercia, and his brother Burgred, Eadwulf’s uncle. Eadwulf is one of the book’s two protagonists – Alfred of Wessex being the other. As the harsh winter in the year 851 begins to melt into spring, the scene also serves to present the first hint that life in Mercia is about change.


With his huntsmen and attendant thegns, King Beorhtwulf rode back from the forest, his two great wolfhounds loping along beside him. It had been a good hunt, confirmed by the quarry slung over the backs of the pack horses. Cooks flapped in appreciation as the huge deer and smaller game were laid outside the wattle-walled building that served as kitchen and bakehouse.

Beorhtwulf surveyed the carcass of the felled deer, an old stag with massive, branching antlers. The slow old beast had made easy prey. ‘It hardly seems fair, does it brother?’

‘What doesn’t seem fair?’ Burgred squinted at Beorhtwulf as unaccustomed sunshine brightened the sky. The air had lost its penetrating bite and he fingered the brooch fastening his black cloak.

‘To end a long life like this…’ Beorhtwulf shrugged his broad shoulders, touching the toe of his boot to the lifeless form. ‘He looks a noble creature; probably sired many calves in his time. To end up spitted over our hearth seems to deprive him of all dignity in death.’

‘Your sentimentality is misguided brother. The beast would surely be gratified to know he afforded many people much pleasure and kept our bellies full. And he was old… would soon have fallen to the forest floor where his carcass would have slowly rotted away, or been eaten by woodland scavengers. Does that sound very dignified to you? Besides, what use would scavengers have for those antlers, when our craftsmen can turn them into such useful things? You know how Morwenna loves her antler combs and bits of jewellery. I’m partial to antler knife handles myself, and the men would be lost without their gaming dice.’

Beorhtwulf grinned at his younger brother, half a head shorter than himself, his red-brown hair less fiery than his own bright red. ‘Point taken, Burgred. The meat will be more useful to us than foxes and the like. Let’s hope today marks the onset of a warm spring,’ he murmured, a note of optimism in his voice. ‘Our people grow restless to sow the corn and move the stock out to pasture.’

But Beorhtwulf was a worried man. The onset of spring would bring a far greater threat to Mercia than the snows, and at tomorrow’s meeting of the Witan there were urgent matters to discuss. With a heavy sigh he whistled for his hounds and strode towards the reed-thatched hall to share the morning meal with his wife and son.

*****

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‘I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.’  (E. B. White)

My Favourite Historical Novels

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I’ve been a ‘bookworm’ for as long as I can remember and, somehow, tales set in the past always claimed my attention much more easily than contemporary ones. Once my childhood fixation with stories of shipwrecks had waned (Robinson Crusoe, The Coral Island and Swiss Family Robinson) I seemed to fixate upon those involving animals. I loved Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang and Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and Just So Stories.

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Then, when I was twelve, I read Charlotte Bronte’s  Jane Eyre. I started reading the book in the back of my dad’s car on a journey to visit relatives. Somehow I managed to ignore the chatter of my younger sister and brother sitting next to me, and concentrate on the book . . . And I kept on concentrating right through the said visit (oh, how utterly rude!) and all the way home. By that time, of course, I had very little of the book to finish. To say that it had got me hooked would sound about right. From then on I went through several more of the classics, amongst them various works by Dickens – Oliver Twist being a favourite at the time.

Although I enjoyed Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I can’t say it sent me into raptures. It was a ‘class reader’ in my fourth year (Year 10) and, like George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, which I studied for ‘O’ Level the following year, I suppose we analysed it to death! Conversely, I really enjoyed studying Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for ‘A’ Level. And what a dark and brooding tale that is – so like the Yorkshire Moors can be at times.

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One interesting little book I read during my second year of secondary school (Year 8) was Elizabeth Goudge’s, The Middle Window. By that time I’d begun to take a real interest in history at school, and since we’d just been learning about the Jacobites and their fate at Culloden, the book was very meaningful to me. I also loved the appeal of the Scottish Highlands. Whether or not I’d find the writing style to my liking now, I can’t say.

And talking about writing style . . .

The author of historical fiction I most admire is Dorothy Dunnett. I read the six books of one of her famous series, The Lymond Chronicles, eighteen years ago, and have been telling myself for years that a reread is in order. In my opinion, Dorothy Dunnett’s novels need reading several times over in order to actually grasp the depth of the characters, particularly Lymond (Francis Crawford) himself. The writing style, too, is incredibly complex, and some pages need reading a few times in order to make sense to lesser mortals such as myself. But, once past the first few pages of Book 1, Game of Kings, I ‘caught on’ to the language/style and from then on, was able to follow the story. Dorothy Dunnett’s use of poetry is quite amazing – and much of it is in French! And what an opening line:

‘Lymond is back.’

Just three little words that have the power to induce so many questions . . .

In more recent years, one of my favourite historical novels has been River God by Wilbur Smith. His descriptions of ancient Egypt enthralled me, as did the character of Taita.

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Similarly, Christian Jacq’s many books set in Egypt fuelled my imagination. I read the five books in his series about Ramses II, then Paneb the Ardent from his the Stone of Light series. Needless to say, I really enjoy most books about Egypt.

But it’s not only Egypt that holds me fascinated. Roman novels have a similar pull. I particularly enjoyed Colleen McCullough’s Caesar and Caesar’s Women. I intend to start on Ben Kane’s first Roman novel, Hannibal: Enemy of Rome very soon. I also love novels set in Victorian and Edwardian times, and also during World War 1.

I desperately need to reread several works by American authors, including some written by Mark Twain. I can only remember reading abridged versions of both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, early on in school. I also feel quite ashamed to admit that I haven’t even read Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mocking Bird yet, although it’s been on my Kindle for months. Then I’d like to read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, followed by Alex Hale’s novel, Roots. I did watch the TV series of Roots in the late 1970’s so I know that the story is incredibly moving.

I must add that I also enjoy novels with a crime/detective element. Many of these have had historical settings, but some have not. At present I particularly enjoy the grittiness of Val McDermid’s storylines and the quirky humour and unconventional tactics of Mark Billingham’s detective, Tom Thorne. I also like Patricia Cornwell’s novels involving the pathologist, Dr. Kay Scarpetta and the details of forensic work described.

I’ll finish for now and get back to writing Pit of Vipers – Book 2 of my Sons of Kings series.

shutterstock_194185796A few interesting quotes about books and reading:

I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done. (Steven Wright)

If there’s a book that you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. (Toni Morrison)

Anyone who says they have only one life to lead must not know how to read a book. (Author unknown)shutterstock_182063360