The guys at the books podcast We’d Like A Word are making quite a name for themselves. Previous guests have included Graham Norton and Anthony Horowitz. I’m honoured to follow in their footsteps. In their mid June broadcast I shared the spotlight with General Sir Peter Wall, the President of Combat Stress. Combat Stress is the premier charity for veterans with complex mental health issues such as PTSD.
Paul Waters and Stevyn Colgan, the show’s producers, had chosen a theme of ‘should trauma influence stories’. Sounds heavy, doesn’t it? Just follow the links below and listen; we laughed. A lot.
We started by talking about Draca, my novel about broken relationships and misunderstandings where one character is a veteran with PTSD. General Wall has read the book and had some wonderfully enthusiastic words to say about it. Paul asked how much trauma can, or should, shape a story. That’s a serious question which prompted serious discussion, but which morphed into reminiscences of Armed Forces life and became just a little explosive. Best line of the broadcast came from Paul Waters, after one anecdote from General Wall: “Just think how far your career might have gone if you hadn’t been caught!”
Where to listen
Sir Peter Wall and Combat Stress
Sir Peter Wall was Chief of the General Staff, the professional head of the British Army, until 2014. If you’d like to know more about Combat Stress and their outstanding work with veterans, their web site is here.
There’s more information about Draca, including extracts, on this site here. For Draca’s Amazon pages, go here for paperback and here for Kindle. At the time of writing, one month from launch, it is scoring a very gratifying 4.6 ex 5 with 20 five star reviews. Draca is also available via Waterstones, Foyles, and all good bookshops.
As anyone who has read Saxon’s Bane knows, I like to write stories where worlds collide. Not, I hasten to add, in the astronomical sense; I don’t write Science Fiction, but I do like the past to echo in the present. Even better, to play on it in a way that has the reader wondering if there is more in today’s world than can be explained by science.
Weaving the past into the present
In a previous post I described how the initial idea for Draca came at anchor in a friend’s boat, watching the ebbing tide reveal the bones of dead ships. What else did the silt’s ancient layers conceal? After all, Guthrum’s Viking army wreaked bloody havoc in that very harbour during their war with Alfred. There’s a contemporary, 9th Century poem by Torbjøn Hornklov which evokes the moment when the dragon ships surged out of the mist:
Ships came from east-way,
All eager for battle,
With grim gaping heads
And rich carved prows.
They carried a host of warriors,
With white shields
And spears from the Westlands
And Celt-wrought swords.
The berserks were roaring
(For this was their battle),
The wolf-coated warriors howling,
And the irons clattering.
But how might such a moment impact the present? Weaving history into a contemporary novel is tricky. In Saxon’s Bane I set whole chapters in the Saxon era. In Draca I took a more subtle approach, revealing the past through the contents of an old man’s bookshelf; his diaries, his obsessive research into his own Danish heritage, and his copies of the ancient sagas. If the tidal scour revealed a Viking artefact, he’d probably keep it. His diaries could reveal his mental disintegration, until he dies raving that he ‘tried to give it back’.
The joys of research
Researching a book can be wonderfully diverting. It sucks time as you wade through bogs of facts. Whole days sink without trace. That old man dies in the first chapter and it’s his legacy that triggers events. Still, just populating his bookshelf mired me very happily in perhaps a month of reading ancient history. I could use almost none of it. All for a book set in the present day.
There are a few exceptions. A dictionary of Old Norse taught me obscure words that became chapter titles; (Chapter 1: Arfræningr, one stripped of his inheritance). Snorri Sturluson’s 13th Century Heimskringla taught me the lilt and vocabulary of Old Norse, even in translation. It taught me enough to ‘book-end’ chapters with short extracts from a Viking saga.
So readers of Draca will find slices of history framing a modern tale; slices that tighten the tension as the ancient and brutal past starts to resonate ever more loudly in the present. Next year, after publication, you’ll be able to tell me if it worked. For now, here’s how that back story begins.
From the saga of King Guthrum, c.875AD
That winter King Guthrum laid down a mighty dragonhead ship for his son Jarl Harald, whom he loved and honoured most of all. Of oak did he build it, cut finely that it might bend with the sea, with benches of pine for twenty oars on the one hand and twenty on the other. The fittings were splendid, as befits a great jarl, and a richly carved strake rose to a wondrous dragonhead at the prow. As was the custom, this could be taken down, like the helm of a warrior, lest it offend the landvættir, the land spirits.
Then Guthrum and Harald made sacrifice in this wise: Harald took a stallion that he loved, and calmed the beast, covering its eyes that it might not see whence the blow would come. Then they took their axes and struck; Harald between the stallion’s eyes, and Guthrum at its neck such that the sound of the blows was one, and none could tell who made the killing wound. So mightily did Guthrum wield his axe that the stallion’s head was wholly struck off, and the wise ones said that the fall of the blood was good, for the dragonhead tasted blood before ever a bowl was brought to its mouth.
Then Harald knew that the gods would sail with them, and would find them even in the furthest reaches of the sea, for the dragonhead was truly consecrated to the Æsir.
Draca is available to pre-order through Unbound here. It’s £10 for an ebook and from £15 for a paperback. The names of all supporters at this pre-publication phase will be included in the book. Half of all royalties will be donated to the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress.
Like all writers, I’m often asked where I find the ideas for my books.
“Sainsbury’s,” I usually reply.
Others have a less flippant answer. I once heard an author quote Michelangelo; ‘I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free’. I snorted at his pretension, even though I had a sneaking admiration for anyone who can claim to see the finished work at the outset. I’d love to have an Epiphany where a complete novel bursts into my head. My stories have small beginnings. I pick at one idea, and in time may encounter another that multiplies the first; a kind of writerly serendipity. Sometimes I can’t even remember the sequence.
The birth of a book
But, unusually, I can remember the exact moment when Draca was born. A friend had asked me to crew for him in his sailing boat, and one evening we’d anchored in one of the great natural harbours that open into the English Channel.
It was a wild, ethereal place, filled with the sunset screaming of gulls, and we sat in his cockpit, sipping whisky and telling stories with the comfortable ease of long friendship. The only sign of life was the squat tower of a Saxon church, far away over the water. Around us the long summer evening faded from pink to peach to grey, and the ebbing tide exposed the bones of dead ships, poking through the mud. It was a twilight so atmospheric that it had to become the setting for a story, and the story would have to feature boats and people who lived at the sea’s edge.
A boat as a character?
I’ve learned that boats have characters. That may sound fanciful, but several more experienced sailors have told me that at first, a boat simply has characteristics, such as her best points of sailing, or the way she lifts and slews to a wave. In time, this basic understanding grows until you recognise her moods; the boat becomes a friend who talks to you, and her language is the feel of the tiller in your hand and the singing of the wind through her rigging. When the ship is sailing well, she feels happy, and when she’s shoulder-charging the waves into a storm, she can be belligerent. Treat her badly, and she can be as angry as a wronged lover. I sense that the older the boat, the more her idiosyncrasies, so why not have a boat as a character?
2 x 2 = 5. Multiplied ideas acquire a momentum. The next time we anchored, in an equally desolate place, I stared at the ribs of another rotted ship and wondered what human stories they could tell; heroism at Dunkirk or the Normandy beaches? Exotic trading voyages in the days of Empire? Those bones might lay on other bones, in ever deeper layers of history, back to a time even before that Saxon church was built. After all, Vikings raided this coast in the 9th Century, exploiting their sea power in their war against Alfred.
All those ‘what if’s’…
That took me off at a tangent. So much of plotting a novel is asking endless ‘what if’ questions. What if an artefact exposed by the mud could be evil? An object that has been central to atrocity, perhaps? People are rarely wholly good or wholly bad; most heroes are flawed, many villains have some redeeming aspect. Humanity implies imperfection. But an object? Europe’s equivalent of a blood-soaked Aztec god? I began to see my angel in the marble.
Except that it was a gargoyle. Or a dragon. Very ugly. With a story to tell.
Read the full story
Draca will be published by Unbound when their threshold of pre-orders has been reached. Today we’re at 65% and rising.
Half the royalties go to the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress. Click here for a synopsis and here for an extract. For the full story, you can order your copy at https://unbound.com/books/draca/
This evening I poured myself a glass of wine, put on some music, and pulled a book off the shelf. I chose, not quite at random, the first volume of Churchill’s ‘History of the English Speaking Peoples’, since I wanted to see what the wartime leader and amateur historian had to say about the dawn of the English. It’s one of those books that are too finely bound or significant to be thrown away, but which somehow sit there yellowing and undisturbed for years. It was written in the 1930’s, and re-edited before publication in 1956, but it is stunning to see how how profoundly have styles changed in just 60 or 80 years. Here he is on the Arthurian legend:
‘If we could see what exactly happened [the reality behind the myth of Arthur] we should find ourselves in the presence of a theme as well founded, as inspired, and as inalienable from the inheritance of mankind as the Odyssey or the Old Testament. It is all true, or it ought to be; and more and better besides. And wherever men are fighting against barbarism, tyranny, and massacre, for freedom, law, and honour, let them remember that the fame of their deeds, even though they themselves be exterminated, may perhaps be celebrated as long as the world rolls round. Let us then declare that King Arthur and his noble knights, guarding the Sacred Flame of Christianity and the theme of a world order, sustained by valour, physical strength, and good horses and armour, slaughtered innumerable hosts of foul barbarians and set decent folk an example for all time.’
Rousing stuff. For a moment my study filled with the scent of a thundering good cigar. Better historians than I might challenge Churchill’s academic rigour, but then he had an angle, in the same way that Bede or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had an angle. There may even be a touch of self-aggrandisement there. But for those who have a taste for history that is robust, muscular, and heroic, he can’t be beaten.
When I reached for my glass, I was mildly surprised to find a humble red rather than a fine brandy.