Readers of my blog will know that I am a massive fan of Matthew Harffy’s Bernicia chronicles. I am caught up in a few historical series at the moment: Scarrow’s Cato and Macro, Cornwell’s Uthred, Mike Jecks’s Pilgrim books, Angus Donald’s new Captain Blood series and Matt’s Beobrand. Finding time as a writer to read for pleasure is actually more difficult than people realise, but these are the books, characters, and writers that I make time for, and that I really admire. I was therefore as giddy as any fanboy when Matthew came to one of my talks last year. So, today marks a bit of a departure for my blog: regular readers will know I tend to review books and comedy that I like along with historical articles and a bit of shallow self promotion. Instead, I am delighted to welcome Matthew for a few questions about his series and research, on the release of the latest - Warriors of Woden (my review for that here).
Many thanks for agreeing to answer some questions, Matthew.
My pleasure. Thanks for having me!
1. The early Heptarchy is a pretty obscure period of history, I struggled with it as a student, and think you are the only person writing fiction set in the period. What was it that drew you to the Seventh Century?
I stumbled on the period by chance. I knew nothing of the history of the seventh century when I started writing the first novel in the series, The Serpent Sword. I saw a TV documentary about graves being excavated as part of an archaeological dig at Bamburgh Castle. Some of the graves were from the early seventh century and the programme mentioned the kingdom of Bernicia and how Bamburgh had been the seat of power of the kings of that northern kingdom that I’d never even heard of before. I’d lived in Northumberland as a boy and visited Bamburgh many times, and something about the image of the castle and Anglo-Saxon longships being pulled up onto the beach beneath the fortress just called to me. I started writing the story that night, all those years ago. I had no plan and no knowledge of the history. Over the intervening years I have read a lot and I now have a much better understanding of what was going on at the time. However, although the politics of the time are an important backdrop to my stories, I try to keep the detail light and distant from the main storyline of Beobrand and his cohort of friends. I find the personal stories much more intriguing than the intrigues and machinations of kings and queens.
2. I know you have a replica of the Coppergate helmet. Have you tried dressing up in the full kit that Beobrand would have used? How do you go about research generally?
I bought the replica of the Coppergate helmet recently, principally as a prop to take along to talks. It gives people something tangible to pick up and play with and to get an idea of the kind of thing warriors would have been wearing at the time of the Bernicia Chronicles. (The Coppergate helmet dates from the eighth century, but the design of helmets did not change drastically over the period.) I don’t own a lot of period gear. The only other thing I own is a pattern welded seax, which is lovely, but I am too scared to take to talks for fear someone might cut something off! It is truly a deadly weapon. I’ve not dressed up in armour and shield and all the rest of it. In terms of research most of it comes from reading and then calling on personal experience, such as camping, riding and fencing and pulling it all together with a heavy dose of imagination to paint a picture that is hopefully authentic. One of the best ways to get a good idea of the gear worn and used by warriors at the time I am writing about is to go to events by living history/reenactment groups, such as the wonderful Wulfheodenas, who recreate noble warriors from the late sixth and early seventh centuries.
One of the members of that group, Matt Bunker, appears on the cover on most of the books in the series so far. It was great to meet him, to get to handle the weapons and to talk about his experiences of wearing all the layers of armour and clothing. Reenactors provide a rich source of information and real-life knowledge.
3. What is your writing process? Is there a set time and place that you sit down to work, and do you plan your plots very carefully or is it more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants?
There is no set time or place for me to sit down and write. I have written the books in hotels, libraries, planes, trains, coffee shops, in the back of my car while waiting for my daughters to come out of a party or a Tae Kwondo class. In short, I’ll write anywhere and as long as I have an hour or so, I’ll get stuck into writing or editing. I map out a rough synopsis and plot at the chapter level and then add details as I go. I don’t write with no idea of where the story needs to end up, but I allow myself the freedom to go where the muse takes me as I get into the story, and the original plot often changes to some extent as things that happen in the story trigger ideas for different twists and turns.
4. Beobrand’s angst at his violence is brilliantly drawn, and is one of the traits that really appeals to me in the series. I recently read an article about representations of PTSD in history looking at the Romans and Shakespeare’s Henry V. Was it a deliberate character choice when you started writing or something that grew organically as Beobrand developed?
I studied the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder while writing The Serpent Sword. My thinking was that there needed to be a reason for Hengist (the villain of the story) to behave the way he does. Whilst I accept that people’s sensibilities were no doubt very different in the time of my stories than they are in the twenty-first century, and that warfare is also a very different beast, I think men and women who were exposed to extreme violence must have been affected in some way and I think it perfectly conceivable that some would suffer from PTSD. Hengist displays some of the most extreme and violent symptoms of PTSD, with perhaps some other mental health issues in for good luck.
As the writing progressed, it seemed very likely to me that Beobrand would also suffer from some of the same symptoms. How each man struggles with his own actions and what he has witnessed is what sets them apart.
5. Beobrand’s contemporary in my neck of the woods (South Wales) is Athrwys ap Meurig, a very tenuous contender for the historical King Arthur (by tenuous, I mean I don’t believe a word of the theory) but also possibly the inspiration for the Arthur in the Mabinogion (13th century welsh legends). Is there any chance we will see Beobrand romping around here?
So far Beobrand has only skirted the edge of the Welsh kingdoms. He will travel further afield in future books, and you never know, he may venture into the mountains of Gwynedd and Powys at some point.
6. You have been really kind about Blandford Candy, but what other books/writers/characters do you look for when you’re browsing a bookshop?
I love your Blandford Candy – such a great character! A few other writers I always look forward to reading are:
· Justin Hill – Shieldwall and Viking Fire are great books set in the 11th century. I can’t wait for the next in the series.
· Lee Child – after more than twenty novels, Jack Reacher is still a wonderful character.
· Robert Lautner – The Road to Reckoning and The Draughtsman are two of the best novels I’ve read in the last few year
Warrior of Woden is available on AMAZON and all other retailers NOW!