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
Amber
Arm-rings
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Leather shoes
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Padlock
Pan-Pipes
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 . . .

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)

History is all around us

There are so many wonderful sites around the world that serve as a constant reminder of our past. Such sites can also stimulate the imaginations of writers of historical fiction and, in many novels, form the backdrop against which the characters can play out their tales.

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Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria

I’ve even visited a few such places myself. I’ve stood with the rest of a tour group and goggled at Egyptian and Greek temples, the Bronze Age ruins at Knossos, and the remains of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Carthage. The splendours of these places will stay with me forever: they are locked inside my head. The colours, sounds and smells, and the clamour of the local people at any one of these places can spring to life again in an instant if I should just close my eyes…

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Wayland’s Smithy: long barrow, Oxfordshire, UK

I suppose I’m lucky to live in a country where every city, town, or village can boast some structure or crumbling ruin that owes its origins to a bygone age. In Britain we have everything from prehistoric stone circles, tumuli and hill forts, to Roman walls, villas and bath-houses and medieval castles and cathedrals.

The remains of the Roman arch on Newport, Lincoln
The remains of the Roman arch on Newport, Lincoln
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Lincoln Cathedral. The first foundations of this magnificent structure were laid in 1088

And so it continues throughout the centuries, through Tudor and Stuart times to the period of the great Victorian architects and builders. And side by side with those great structures stand the simpler, quaint old cottages and farmhouses.

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The Ribblehead Viaduct carries the Settle to Carlisle railway, built 1870-74

Writers of historical fiction, or rather, good writers of historical fiction, have the knack of making those bygone times seem like now. They bring the action alive, so that we see, hear, smell, feel or even taste whatever the characters in the story are experiencing. And that is a commendable skill, one that I kept firmly in mind whilst I was writing my own first book, Shadow of the Raven.

I’ll finish off with these thought-provoking  quotes:

I think that all of us who write about the past feel a deep and haunting connection with it. Socrates said that all knowledge is possessed by the soul and it’s just a matter of remembering it. I believe that to be true.’

(Karen Essex)

The truth of it is that it is simply not possible to create an accurate portrait of the past. No one can faithfully reproduce the reality of the 1970’s, let alone the 1570’s.

(Tim Wilcox)

History never looks like history when you are living through it.’

(Samuel Butler)

*****