Currently viewing the tag: "historical fiction"

As well as visiting bookshops and libraries as part of my book tour, occasionally I’m also invited to speak about my work in universities and schools, and it’s been my pleasure in the last few weeks to present talks and chair workshops at both Swansea University and Huddersfield New College.

From left to right: myself and Dr Charlie Rozier following my public lecture at Swansea University. Photo credit: Swansea University.

At Swansea I was invited first to co-chair a workshop for medieval history students, looking at primary sources, their value and their limitations. After a short presentation by me, students used extracts relating to the Norman Conquest as inspiration for creative writing – an unusual and in many ways counterintuitive brief to give historians, for whom imaginative interpretation of available evidence doesn’t always come naturally, but an exercise that produced some interesting results.

Later I also gave a public lecture on the process of writing historical fiction, tackling a common question posed by readers, and one that has dominated the debate about the genre for seemingly forever: “Where do you draw the line between fact and fiction?” Drawing upon examples from my own work, I argued that we shouldn’t fixate, as we traditionally have done, on the issue of historical accuracy. Rather, we should celebrate fiction’s potential to understand, interpret and communicate the past in new ways, and I offered some alternative ways of framing the debate regarding the genre.

Both sessions provoked some lively discussion with staff and students, historians and writers alike. I was thrilled to be invited to speak – my thanks to Dr Charlie Rozier (pictured with me, above) for kindly organising the event and making sure the day ran smoothly.

Delivering my public lecture on historical fact and fiction at Swansea University. Photo credit: Charlie Rozier.

The following week I was delighted to return to Huddersfield New College for the third year in a row as their guest author for World Book Day. As well as speaking about the process of researching and writing historical fiction with A-Level medieval and modern history students, I also led a creative workshop based around a series of timed writing challenges designed to free up the imagination and to help writers bypass the internal editor that can sometimes hold them back.

Students were encouraged to write as much or as little as they wanted, without any obligation to share what they’d produced. The challenges varied in difficulty and structuredness, including question-based prompts for generating plots, a picture-based free writing exercise and the ever-popular (and my favourite) “word salad”. I was hugely impressed not just with the energy and enthusiasm the students brought to all of the tasks, but also the range of different responses produced, which often put my own efforts in the shade!

Me (centre, holding The Harrowing) with A-Level students at Huddersfield New College and History course leader Scott Townsend (far right). Photo credit: Huddersfield New College.

Again this year I was given the honour of presenting the certificates at a lunchtime prizegiving ceremony to the winners – chosen by College staff – of the annual short story competition, this year themed upon myths and legends. I also made myself available throughout the afternoon to chat with students about their current writing projects and give advice. It was fantastic to speak to so many keen young writers, and I wish them all the best for their future literary adventures. I’d like to thank Rebecca Hill, the College Librarian, for putting together this year’s event, as well as to Scott Townsend, Sarah Newton and the Principal, Angela Williams, for once more making me feel so welcome.

I’m always happy to visit schools, colleges and universities to speak about my work and to run creative writing sessions. If you’re a teacher, librarian or lecturer and would be interested in hosting a similar event, please do get in touch with me via the Contact page – I’d be glad to discuss some ideas.

“The sword-path is never a straight road, but rather ever-changing, encompassing many twists and turns. All a man can do is follow it and see where it leads.”

In a little less than a month’s time, Knights of the Hawk, the third instalment in my Conquest Series featuring the knight Tancred, will be released in the United States in hardcover.

Knights of the Hawk (US hardcover)

Knights of the Hawk • James Aitcheson
Sourcebooks Landmark • 416 pp. • Hardcover • $24.99

Like the previous two volumes in the series, the book will be published by the excellent team at Sourcebooks Landmark, with whom I’ve had the immense pleasure of working over the last three years, and will be available from all good bookstores and online retailers from August 4th.

Ely Cathedral, West Tower

The cathedral at Ely, built on the site of the Anglo-Saxon monastery which Hereward and his fellow rebels established as their base in the fight against the Normans.

Set in the autumn of 1071, slightly less than one year on from the end of The Splintered Kingdom, it sees Tancred journeying further afield than ever before, setting out across the length and breadth of Britain and making common cause with some unlikely allies as he strives for honour, vengeance and love.

The novel begins during the siege of the Isle of Ely, where the infamous English outlaw Hereward the Wake has gathered a band of rebels to make one final, last-ditch stand against the Normans.

As King William’s attempts to assault the rebels’ island stronghold end in disaster, however, the campaign begins to stall. With morale in camp failing, the king turns to Tancred to deliver the victory that will crush the rebels once and for all and bring England firmly within his grasp. But events are conspiring against Tancred, and soon he stands to lose everything he has fought so hard to gain.

Read the first chapter

“It is in those final hours, when the prospect of battle has become real and the time for hard spearwork is suddenly close at hand, that a man feels most alone, and when doubt and dread begin to creep into his thoughts. No matter how many foes he has laid low, or how long he has trodden the sword-path, he begins to question whether he is good enough, or whether, in fact, his time has come.”

Also, keep a look out for the U.S. paperback edition of The Splintered Kingdom, which will be published by Sourcebooks Landmark in November. I’ll be posting more information about that in the coming months.

What makes a great first sentence? What do people look for in the opening of a novel? How do authors grab readers’ attentions and entice them to read on?

These were some of the questions I posed last week when I visited Marlborough College to lead a two-day creative writing workshop for a group of Year 9s as part of their summer term’s Form Festival. The ancient monuments at nearby Avebury provided the inspiration, the students provided the creativity, and the end result was the very smart-looking anthology pictured here!

Marlborough College - Form Festival Creative Writng Anthology

After spending a few hours exploring the ancient stones and the museums at Avebury, and trying to imagine the kinds of people who might have lived there through the ages, we returned to the College in the afternoon armed with character concepts and the seeds for possible plots.

With guidance, suggestions and feedback from me, the students then started to use the ideas they’d come up with to write a short story or the first chapter of a novel. At the end of the second day, all the pieces, complete with blurbs and front covers, were collected into the volume shown above, which was printed for the rest of the school to read and enjoy.

Avebury, Wiltshire

One of the two Portal Stones at Avebury, Wiltshire.

Although the main focus of the workshop was historical fiction, the students were encouraged to let their imaginations run wild and to write in whatever genre they liked, so long as their stories were connected in some way to Avebury.

What emerged from the workshop was an amazing outpouring of creativity. The tales produced took place in all periods of history, from the Neolithic to the Viking Age to the modern day; they featured supernatural forces, ancient rituals, long-forgotten battles, mysterious ruins, and a diverse range of characters including druids, archaeologists and a prehistoric proto-suffragette rebelling against the traditions of her tribe.

Research materials

Some of the research materials used to generate ideas, including maps, artists’ renderings and (of course) books!

Thanks to everyone at Marlborough College for making me feel so welcome over the two days I was there. It was a pleasure to work with such an enthusiastic group of writers, and I wish them the best of luck for the future.

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Earlier this year, I was invited to give a talk about the Norman Conquest and also to run a creative writing workshop at Huddersfield New College to celebrate this year’s World Book Day.

The creative writing session was based around a series of short, fun challenges designed to help free up the imagination, spark ideas and (above all) overcome the fear of the blank page – an affliction that strikes all authors from time to time.

Huddersfield New College

Here I am with the creative writing group at Huddersfield New College
on World Book Day 2015. Photo credit: Huddersfield New College.

I was blown away with the range and quality of writing produced in response to the various challenges I set. The workshop was enormous fun for me as well as for the students, as I think you can tell from our grins in the photo above, taken at the end of the workshop.

As at Marlborough, the welcome I received from both staff and students in Huddersfield was absolutely terrific. With any luck my being there will have inspired a few to go on to study History or to develop their writing further! I certainly felt very privileged to be in the presence of so many talented young authors, and I hope to be able to return in the not too distant future.

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If you’d like to get in touch about organising a creative writing workshop at your school, college, library or festival, you can do so via the Contact page.

This week I’m pleased to be interviewing author and artist Rus Madon, the creator of the Isle of Eels map (below). The map reconstructs the historical geography of the Fens around Ely as they would have appeared at the time of the Norman Conquest: specifically in 1071, when Hereward the Wake and other rebels used the Isle as a base from which to conduct their guerilla war against the invaders.

The Isle of Eels

The Isle of Eels by Rus Madon. The original measures 1m x 1.2m and took 200 hours to complete.

Rus recently sent me a copy of his meticulously researched map, a remarkable piece of work and a wonderful resource for anyone fascinated, as I am, by the Fens and the role that they played in the years that followed 1066.

His work was also featured recently on the British Library’s blog. You can find him on Twitter at @RusMadon.

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What was the initial inspiration for researching and creating the map, and how long did it take you to complete?

I am writing a Young Adult story about a girl who lives in modern-day Ely. She travels back in time to the year 1071 when Ely was defended against the Normans by Hereward the Wake. The more I wrote about 11th-century Ely, the more I wondered what it actually looked like. I knew that Ely had been an island, and I was having difficulty tracking where my characters were in relation to the original fens. So to help answer the question, I set about drawing a map of medieval Ely.

Including doing all the research, it took 200 hours to complete the map over an 8 month period in 2013. The original map is 1m x 1.2m and I had to make a workspace in the loft for all the materials, as it was too big to work on in the house!

Was this the first time you’d tackled a project like this?

The proper answer is yes. I do not have an artistic bone in my body, and made several attempts before ending up with the version you see. The eels in the border were particularly challenging (or should I say slippery!).

Rus MadonHowever, when I was a teenager in the mid 1970s, I spent an entire summer holiday recreating the map of Middle Earth from The Lord of the Rings. By coincidence, that is also 1m x 1.2m, and was drawn on a big piece of butcher’s paper! It hangs on the wall next to my map of Ely.

The Romans were the first to try to drain the Fens. How much evidence of their activities can still be seen in the landscape today?

Well, the Romans were first and foremost engineers, and they managed to tame many environments across Europe. But the might of Rome met her match with the fens! The landscape of the fens was too wild and impenetrable for the Romans to have any real success in their attempts to drain them.

However, the Romans did build several causeways to make travel easier, the most famous of which was the Fen Causeway, or Fen Road. This linked Denver, near Downham Market, to Peterborough, but it essentially was a road at the northern edge of the fens, which at that time would have been a coast road, as the modern coastline is many miles further north than it was in Roman times. Another causeway linked Cambridge with Ely, some of which is now part of the A10 trunk road and can be seen near Denny Abbey.

They also excavated the Cardyke (visible on my map). This canal system linked the Granta (now the Cam) to the West River and allowed movement of goods and people through the river system of the fens.

Since the marshes were drained in the seventeenth century it has obviously changed a great deal. How difficult was it to rediscover the medieval Fens?

It was harder than I expected. At first I simply tried searching online for a copy of how the fens would have looked, and that would have been sufficient for what I needed. But there were no definitive sources I could find. I also became aware that researchers had published material, but the information was not easily accessible.

What became apparent was that my task had two elements to it. The first was to try and understand how the land would have looked. This was relatively straightforward, as whilst the level of the water table has dropped since the fens were drained, the geology that created the “islands” has not changed at all (in other words, there has been no undue erosion of the landmass).

By far the most difficult part of the research was to try and understand how the waterways would have looked, and how they linked together. The river systems that people living in Ely today will recognise is very different to that of a thousand years ago. Today, the Ouse runs west to east and joins the Cam before heading North past Ely. The Cam (Granta) has not changed much since those times, but it came to light that the West River flowed east to west and joined the Great Ouse to head north to the left of Ely! This was a very different system to that seen today. The courses of the Ouse changed principally because of the two huge artificial drainage ditches that were constructed to the northwest of Ely (the Bedford Rivers), commissioned by the 4th Earl of Bedford in 1630 to help in the process of draining the fens.

What sources did you use to delve into this lost landscape?

I used the resources of the British Library to look for the oldest maps of the area prior to the Dutch draining the fens in the 17th century. All maps of the area are thought to derive from a survey of the area carried out by William Hayward at the beginning of the 17th century. This map was destroyed in a fire, but it is believed that Sir Robert Cotton, a keen collector of fenland maps, had a copy made (The Cotton Map). It is an extraordinary document. Looking at the hand drawn map, you can see the lost Isle of Eels emerging from the fens, as if I was looking back in time.

I supplemented this information with a review of existing Ordnance Survey maps, using the 5-metre contour line to sketch out land that would have been above the ancient water table. In the British Library I came across a pivotal paper published by Major Gordon Fowler in 1934. This paper outlined the possible ancient watercourses of the area. Along with several other authors and notably the excellent Henry Darby, I pieced together how the rivers would have flowed around the island in Saxon times.

The final step was to add the main settlements that would have existed in 1071. For this I used a mixture of references from Domesday Book and the Liber Eliensis, the so-called Book of Ely, written in the 12th century by monks at Ely Abbey.

[NOTE: A full list of references can be found at the end of Rus’s article on the British Library’s blog.]

How much fieldwork did you have to do and what did that involve? How useful was it to be on the ground?

During the summer of 2013 I drove the back roads and lanes that criss-cross the island, making adjustments to my notes, extending the sweep of a hill, noting natural hollows in the ground, and removing the causeways and embankments that had been added much later. Without doubt, being on the ground helped add context to the map.

But for me, on a personal level, it was more than a matter of accuracy. Seeing the landscape allowed me to connect with the map, it helped guide my hand when I was back in my draughty cold loft, transcribing the information; it made the map live for me.

Were there any particularly unusual or surprising nuggets of information that you turned up in the course of your research?

My discovery that the modern day Ouse had a completely different route and was not joined to the Cam surprised me. But to some extent, that was a matter of historical record, I simply needed the time to find the information.

However, some of the old books I read in the British Library gave vivid accounts of the fens in medieval times. The people were a breed apart; tough, independent, wary of outsiders. They wore eel skins to ward off illness and bad spirits. They would fight fiercely to defend their homes. The fens themselves were thriving with life, with bitterns, swans and eels. I read of Flag Iris, a beautiful carpet of flowers with a fragrant scent; but if a man stood on it, he would be sucked deep into the waters below. There was one account of a pod of whales that swam into the Granta from the sea. They became stuck in a small tributary and died. For many decades their skeletons were a reminder of the dangers of the fens.

So what did I do with all these nuggets? I am a writer, so I weaved them into my story, to bring it alive, to make it real.

How do you plan to use the map now that it’s finished?

Now that the map is complete (a copy of which I donated to the British Library), I can travel back in time to 1071 and see the Isle of Eels through the eyes of my characters. It has allowed me to be more credible when describing their adventures.

It is also my intention for the map to be part of the book, so that the readers can also see what Ely would have looked like in the eleventh century. Maybe one day, if my book is a success, the map will become as famous as the one of Middle Earth…

“They came at first light, when the eastern skies were still gray and before anyone on the manor had risen. Shadows lay across the land: across the hall upon the mound and the fields surrounding it, across the river and the woods and the great dyke beyond that runs from sea to sea. And it was from those shadows that they came upon Earnford, with swords and knives and axes…”

The Splintered Kingdom (US hardcover)

The Splintered Kingdom
James Aitcheson • Sourcebooks
416 pp. • Hardcover • $24.99

So begins The Splintered Kingdom, the second novel in my Conquest Series set during the violent aftermath of the Battle of Hastings. Published by the wonderful people at Sourcebooks Landmark, it goes on sale today in hardcover in the United States, and its 416 pages can be yours for just $24.99 (list price).

Set in England in 1070, one year on from the end of Sworn Sword, it once more features the ambitious Norman knight Tancred, who has been rewarded for his exploits with a lordship in the turbulent Welsh borderlands. But his hard-fought gains are soon placed in peril as a coalition of enemies both old and new prepares to march against King William. With English, Welsh and Viking forces gathering and war looming, Tancred is chosen to spearhead a perilous expedition. Success will bring him glory beyond his dreams; failure will mean the ruin of the reputation he has worked so hard to forge. As shield walls clash and the kingdom burns, not only his Tancred’s destiny at stake, but also that of England itself.

Read the first chapter

Like all my novels, The Splintered Kingdom can be read as a standalone adventure, so you don’t necessarily have to read Sworn Sword first in order to follow what’s going on. As always, e-book editions are available on all platforms for the more digitally inclined. Both the physical and the electronic versions also include a sneak preview of the third novel in the series, Knights of the Hawk, which is already scheduled to be published by Sourcebooks Landmark in 2015.

If you’re interested in finding more about the Welsh borderlands, where The Splintered Kingdom takes place, I’ve just published a mini-history of the region in the Tancred’s England section of my website – my historical guide to England as it was c.1066. It’s a project that I’m constantly developing and which I’m looking to expand over the coming months, with entries on some of the other places visited by Tancred in the course of his travels.

Sea Stallion

The reconstructed Viking ship, Sea Stallion, the subject of Tom Birkett’s paper at the Unlocking the Vikings conference, sails into Dublin, 14 August 2007.
 
(Image adapted under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence from an original photo by William Murphy.)

2014 is turning out to be the year of the Norsemen! As well as visiting the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition at the British Museum and attending the Midlands Viking Symposium in the spring, last weekend I took time out from working on my latest novel-in-progress to go to the Unlocking the Vikings conference at the University of Nottingham.

In common with last year’s The Middle Ages in the Modern World at the University of St Andrews, the focus of the two-day event was as much upon the various ways in which the Viking Age has been represented in modern culture as it was upon the history itself. There were so many excellent papers and presentations – too many to mention individually – but I’ve chosen some of what, for me, were the highlights of the weekend.

The first session of the conference focussed on the Vikings in fiction, something of great interest to me since the Norsemen feature prominently both in Tancred’s saga and in the wider story of the Norman Conquest. Historian and novelist VM Whitworth (University of the Highlands and Islands) spoke about developing Viking Age characters, and the need for authors to fully immerse themselves in the thought-world of their creations. Ruarigh Dale (University of Nottingham) discussed portrayals of berserkers in current fiction, and how modern concepts compare with the original descriptions of these warriors in the Norse sagas.

Languages, Myths and Finds booklets

The findings of the Languages, Myths and Finds project were brought together in these five beautifully produced booklets.

The conference also marked the conclusion of the Languages, Myths and Finds project, which aimed to investigate how Norse heritage and culture continue to make an impact in the twenty-first century, and the ways in which the Viking past is remembered and celebrated in Dublin, Munster, the Isle of Man, the Hebrides and Cleveland. Each of the regional teams presented their findings, which included the dramatic reveal by the Cleveland researchers of a previously unknown Viking runestone – an especially exciting discovery since, in contrast to Scandinavia, so few have been found in England.

As well as giving presentations at the conference, the teams also produced a series of booklets containing the findings of their research (pictured, above left): one for each of the five regions explored in the study. The booklets can also be downloaded in PDF form from the Languages, Myths and Finds website, where you can also find out more about the project and its aims. The video below from the University of Nottingham also gives a brief introduction.

Other highlights from the conference included a skaldic performance by Thor Ewing, featuring music on reconstructed Viking Age harp and flute, and a paper by Tom Birkett (University College Cork) on his experiences aboard the Sea Stallion – a reconstructed Viking ship based on the remains of Skuldelev 2, an eleventh-century vessel excavated at Roskilde, Denmark in 1962.

As always with these events, I came away brimming with ideas and armed with several pages of notes, furiously scribbled during the various talks and presentations. And who knows? Somewhere in all those notes might lie the inspiration for a future novel or two…