Book Promotion: Shadow of the Raven

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Just a quick post to say that the eBook version of Book 1 of my Sons of Kings trilogy, Shadow of the Raven, is free for today only (Thursday, January 26). Every download would be greatly appreciated.

For more detail about what the book is about, click the link to my newly created My Books page.

Here are the links to the books on:

Amazon.com

Amazon.co.uk

Amazon.com.au

Every download would be greatly appreciated. 🙂

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Researching for Historical Fiction

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Historical fiction is something I love to write. The reason…? I simply love history, any time period and any setting. At present I’m concentrating on the Viking era in the mid-ninth century as I finish the third book in my Sons of Kings trilogy. The first two of these are in my sidebar over there, and the third will be titled Wyvern of Wessex. After that, I have plans for several other ‘histfics’, but not set in the Viking era.

So what exactly is historical fiction?

Well, until recently, most definitions told us that stories set fifty or more years ago could be classed as historical fiction. Recently, however, I’ve seen various sites that have reset that definition to twenty-five years. For someone of my age, twenty-five years ago seems just like yesterday and that definition does little for my self-image. I’m already feeling like an old fossil.

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Twenty five years only takes us to the early nineties. So a book set in 1991 is now classed as historical fiction. Oh my…! But when I think about it, even yesterday is history… one second ago is history. I suppose past times, no matter how recent, are all ‘history’.

As for actually writing historical fiction, just what does it involve?

For starters, like several other genres, it involves the writer doing a lot of research (unless he or she a hugely successful author and can afford to hire people to do it for them). Fortunately, doing research is so much easier nowadays than it was years ago when the only place for doing it, other than buying your own text books, was the good old library. But now, authors have the Internet and access to numerous informative sites, including those about history.

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Having said that, I would never, ever, dismiss the value of good books about the period and historical characters I want to write about. I have some excellent texts that have been invaluable. But online sources can give us lots of interesting – and different – information. And, of course, there’s still the library.

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Exactly what you research can include anything from dates of characters’ births and deaths, to dates of important events of the time. But details about everyday life are important, too. We need to know things like building types, foods (and how and when they were cooked and eaten) clothing and general customs and attitudes. All add to the authenticity of the story – but must be ‘fed’ carefully and intermittently into the story.

Getting details about the period wrong is definitely not a good idea, as there will always be at least one reader who’ll notice. Several years ago I read an article in a Writing magazine by an editor in the US. In this article, he quoted what he called the ‘worst example of historical inaccuracies’ he’d ever come across. It was in a book about Mary Queen of Scots, who was beheaded in 1587. (The author’s name and book title were not divulged, of course). He quoted a scene between Mary and her husband, Lord Darnley, which I’ll re-quote as closely as I remember it. Mary supposedly says:

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Darnley, honey, let me fix you a chicken sandwich.

I’ll leave you to pick out what’s wrong with that one – but I found it hilarious!

For my trilogy there were two main things I had to focus on. The first was the life of King Alfred the Great, one of the two main protagonists. This is one of the two statues erected in his honour (both in Victorian times as you can probably tell from the photo below). This one is in the Market Place in Wantage, Oxfordshire (formerly Berkshire), which is believed to be where Alfred was born.

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I also had to focus on Viking ships and voyages as well as everyday lifestyles of both Vikings and Anglo-Saxons in the mid-ninth century.These are a few ‘photos of photos’ we took in Denmark, so I apologise for the poor quality of them. They were taken at Lindholm Høje in northern Denmark. Some are from inside the museum, others are of the very famous Viking burial ground there.

The Jorvik (pronounced Yorvik) Viking museum in York (Yorkshire, UK) was also excellent for information about Viking life. The museum succumbed to floodwaters when the River Ouse flooded in December 2015 and won’t be open again until spring 2017. Fortunately, most of the exhibits were saved.

All in all, the research kept me busy for quite some time. But, we visited some wonderful historic sites and museums in both England and Denmark as part of it. So that can’t be bad, can it? The visit to Denmark really helped with the parts of the books set there – a lot of Book One in particular, which is mostly about my second protagonist, Eadwulf of Mercia. Although he’s a fictional character, the main events in my book that take place in his kingdom, are not.

We still love to visit historical sites related to all periods of history. Reenactments are a particular favourite at the moment, and we’ve been to a few this year. These photos are from a battle between Alfred and the Danes staged at Corfe castle in Dorset in May.

And these are from the Viking Village at Murton, near York. I wrote a post about this in April this year.

‘Bear’ is really quite something, and he was very helpful in explaining all about his unusual helmet and why few Vikings ever adopted that style. All ‘grist to the mill’, as they say.

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The City of York – a gem of a place for historical fiction writers

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Last Tuesday, my husband and I had a trip out to the wonderful old city of York. We’re regular visitors to the city itself, which is roughly eighty miles from where we live, but on this occasion our main purpose was to  revisit the Jorvik Viking Centre. We hadn’t been to Jorvik since the early 1990’s and the whole place has been considerably updated since then, although the basic layout of the Viking streets was much as I remembered it.

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Jorvik Viking Centre is 30 years’ old!

York itself is a magnet for tourists from many parts of the world. Cameras are out wherever you go in the central areas, aiming to capture as many of the beautiful or quaint old buildings as possible. Others aim for more specific periods of history, because York is one of those places that display a veritable journey through time.

To quote from Wikipedia:

The history of York as a city dates to the beginning of the first millennium AD but archaeological evidence for the presence of people in the region of York date back much further to between 8000 and 7000 BC.’

In the first century AD, the town was called Eboracum, and was one of the major Roman cities – their ‘capital’ in the North of Britain. Prior to that, the region belonged to Celtic tribes, the most well know of which were the Brigantes. There’s abundant evidence for the Roman occupation around the city, from the town walls and gates . . .

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Section of the Roman Wall
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Bootham Bar – the main , northbound gateways in the Roman wall
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Micklegate Bar

. . . to columns and plaques signifying what once stood on particular sites, as well as umpteen artefacts in The Yorkshire Museum.

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Roman column
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Plaque at Bootham Bar

Following Roman withdrawal from Britain, the whole country was left open to raiders from across the sea – notably at this period, those we call the Anglo Saxons. The map shows areas on the Continent from which some of these peoples came:

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Where the Anglo-Saxon peoples came from

It was the Angles who mainly settled in Northumbria, the Saxons being much further south. The Angles called the city, Eorforwic (in some texts Eorferwic). The favoured building material of the Anglo-Saxons was wood, which, unfortunately for archaeologists and historians, does not endure through the centuries. So, little remains of Anglo-Saxon York other than general artefacts, like this 8th century helmet found on Coppergate, which also happens to be the the main street in Viking York.

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The Coppergate Helmet – Coppergate also happens to be the main street in Viking York.

The Vikings (mostly Danes) first subjugated York in 866, a year after the arrival of what we call the ‘Great Heathen Army’ in East Anglia 865. Danish settlement in the area would doubtless have taken place gradually, but by the time of the establishment of the Danelaw (following a treaty between Alfred the Great  and the Danish leader, Guthrum, in 886) the Anglo-Saxon name of Eorforwic had become the Danish name, Jorvik.

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The Danelaw

Here are some illustrations  and artefacts from the Jorvik Viking Centre website. As in most museums, flash photography is forbidden (which meant that our camera was banned) so if photos are wanted, visitors need to remember to carry something with a built-in flash. The marketing manager, Mr. Paul Whiting, very kindly suggested I use the photos from their website. Here’s the link -Jorvik for anyone who’d like to have a look for themselves:

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Fisherman working on his net
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Viking woman in traditional dress
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Jorvik building timbers

The Jorvik holds several events over the year, which cover the whole period of Viking York up to the time of the Norman Invasion in 1066. After that date the tale of Medieval York begins – for which there is boundless evidence all over the city . . . And so on through to more recent times. The ‘veritable journey through time’ to which I referred earlier can be seen through the strata meticulously displayed in the Jorvik Centre.

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Ready for the shield-wall
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Arm-rings
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Leather shoes
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Padlock
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Pan-pipes

York has been like a honey-pot to settlers since ancient times. The River Ouse, which flows through the city and out to the North Sea, would have provided a natural route inland for settlers and raiders alike.

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River Ouse

The river’s confluence with the smaller River Foss provided the requisite natural defences for the early city, and the surrounding fertile and flat land was ideal for crops.

Since my Sons of Kings trilogy is set in the mid-late 9th century, it’s the Anglo-Saxon and Viking evidence that presently draws me to York. But I also love all things Roman and medieval. After the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1487 my interest tends to wane, but it sparks right back up again with the onset of the Victorian period and the First World War.

But right now, I’m even dreaming of Anglo-Saxons and ‘Vikings’ – and King Alfred’s almighty struggle to keep his kingdom . . .

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)