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.
My wife and I were invited to a gloriously extravagant party recently, when we were invited to turn up dressed in the style of ‘the French Revolution or Les Miserables’. We were also invited to submit a ‘limerick or clerihew’ on a relevant theme. My limerick grew, acquired a West Indian accent, and became a rap. So here, for your gentle amusement, is
The Waterloo Rap
In eighteen hundred and then fifteen
That’s way before young Vic was Queen
We Brits marched South, tooled up to fight
The Grand Armée in all its might.
See, we love French cheese, we love French wine,
We’d even love their Josephine,
But killing a king, now that ain’t right,
And égalité gave our toffs a fright.
So Wellington, yes, he De Man
Who’d stop the Frogs if anyone can,
Led me an’ Fred an’ all our crew
Along the road to Waterloo,
And dissed that Boney
Soit qui mal y pense,”
Which sounded good, but don’t make sense.
They came on hard, they came on tough
Till Boney finally cried “Enough!”
And after a hell of guts and gore
There weren’t many left from the day before
So I shared a pipe with a French Old Guard
And told him “Man, you tried us hard
But killing a king, see, that’s a crime, and
You can’t kill George, ‘coz that sod’s mine.”
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.
In the last week, there have been a lot of threads on Facebook and writers’ sites about genre, and the challenges of classifying books. Back in August, the Hugo Award-winning SF & Fantasy site, SF Signal, asked me to write a guest blog on the subject. Here are my thoughts; click the image for the original article.
Literature, Genre, and Geeks
Tag me with a genre label and I’ll probably wince. They’re like that childhood game of pinning the tail on the donkey, blindfold, except I’m the donkey. Every now and then there’s a pinprick and I find another useless appendage dangling from my ear or nostril. HF, UF, Fantasy, Dark Fantasy…I’ve been stuck with them all.
My irritation with labels began with the slight sneer of superiority about genre; that sense, on my journey to publication, that I was on the wrong side of the tracks. I had this bizarre vision of being greeted by a marketing executive at a great but imaginary literary establishment. “Literary Fiction? Over there, sir, the smart chaps in suits and cufflinks. Historical? Down the passage, mate, look for the swords, sandals, and bodices. Fantasy? Downstairs, guv. We don’t let no geeks up ‘ere.”
Literary snobbishness aside, the real problem with genre labels is that this convenient, box-ticking marketing machine has little room for grey areas. It seems to be designed for publishers’, distributors’, and retailers’ convenience. By superimposing structure onto a craft that is inherently qualitative, it primarily benefits the publishing machine, not the author or the reader. It thinks in lists; the SF list, the HF list, the Chic Lit list (and I couldn’t say that after a glass of wine), whereas writers create word pictures that should be art rather than paint-by-numbers. We need the freedom to stray across boundaries.
I like ambiguity, you see. I inhabit the hinterland where history becomes fantasy, and both cross the border into literature. I enjoy ghost stories where a plausible explanation still lingers in the background, or the kind of fantasy where the real world is touched by magic the way sunlight glints on water. Blink and the light may have gone, but the scent of an otherness remains.
I suppose I should blame the world I live in. The real one, that is, not the caverns of half-constructed mental space called ‘Works In Progress’. My real world has history written across its landscape; place names that tell of Saxon settlements, winding lanes that an English drunkard made as he lurched home from the mead hall. The past lives around us in the present, but what if those distant ancestors could speak to us? What stories would come alive?
So much of writing, I find, starts with that question “what if…” Take the village of Allingley, for example, a dreamy place on the banks of the Swanbourne. Allingley would have been Aegl-ingas-leah in Anglo-Saxon, the clearing of the folk of Aegl. What if this was the Aegl of Saxon legend, the mighty archer whose love was Olrun, the Swan Maiden?
I like joining the dots, even if the dots sit in different boxes of the marketing machine. When Saxon’s Bane was still a vague idea, I saw an article about the millennia-old bodies that are occasionally found in peat bogs, with their features sometimes so well preserved that they seem simply to be sleeping. Many of them were ritually slaughtered. Now, what if a peat-preserved Saxon grave was discovered on the outskirts of Allingley? What if an archaeologist developed a preternatural understanding of her project? What if the present day started to mirror the ancient, bloody past?
I’m back with the marketing exec. “Bit historical, are we?” he asks in a tone of voice that suggests ‘historical’ is a nervous condition. “But set in the present day? That won’t do, then…” Much sucking of teeth as he looks down his lists. “And a ghost, you say? That’ll be fantasy, then. Mind the steps; it’s a bit dark down there.”
I know, I know; genre labels help to point readers towards books they might like. Labels become banners under which people of similar interests can congregate, for example in forums like this one. But sticking a genre label on a book is not an indicator of quality. A bad book doesn’t become an Iain M Banks classic just by labeling it ‘SF’. A good publisher, on the other hand, is highly selective, invests in its authors, and won’t touch cr@p. First division authors such as the late and much loved Iain B are sufficiently established to have a brand of their own, but for the rest of us, being associated with a publisher’s brand helps us towards stardom. Maybe there’s a case for publishers to promote their brand values a little more? More branding, less tagging?
And in the mean time, I’m writing fantasy. With more than a dash of history. It’s quite literary, I’m told, but reads like a thriller. Oh, and there’s a dash of romance thrown in.
Hell, it’s a ghost story.
After Niall Alexander kindly reviewed Saxon’s Bane on his brilliant site ‘The Speculative Scotsman’, (click the image to read it) he kindly invited me to write a guest post. He even gave me the subject of ‘History in Fiction’ to link in to previous posts.
The subject started me thinking. Here, with Niall’s permission, are the results:
“Ee, when I were a lad…”
Elderly relatives used to start their reminiscences like that when, er, I was a lad. I remember folding my face into an attitude of dutiful attention as I wondered how long I’d have to endure some fragment of ‘ancient’ history. After a while, I’d squirm and find an excuse to slip away. After all, I was force-fed enough history at school, fact by repetitive fact.
“Kings of England, William the Conqueror onwards!” a master would bark. The Norman Conquest was, after all, the date when all history started, as every English schoolboy knows. “Who can tell me?”
“Sir, sir, me sir! William, William, Henry, Stephen, Henry, Richard, John…”
I don’t think I differentiated between taught history and living history, as a boy. History was all about facts to be regurgitated, not experiences to be felt. What could those relatives tell me? First hand accounts of battles would have been interesting. In my childhood, there were still old folks alive who’d fought in the First World War. One relative had even survived both Flanders trenches and the Russian Revolution. My father fought with the Eighth Army in North Africa. Frustratingly, none of them wanted to talk about their battles, at least not in the heroic language a schoolboy craves. They’d flinch away from a direct question, but as I grew older, fragments of their memories sometimes fell in softly spoken words, and the mood would go still, tightening into itself. In that silence I glimpsed the stuttering terror of close-range tracer fire in the night, or felt the anguish of a survivor of atrocity. But by the time I was mature enough to listen, many of the stories would never be told again.
I think those fragments roused my interest not in ‘what happened’, but in what it felt like to be there while it happened. The perspective of the peasant, not the lord, the common soldier rather than the general. I also came to understand the impact on people, who seem with hindsight rather like trees that have survived the crushing weight of a boulder; take away the stone and the tree may thrive again, but not always in the pure shape that nature intended.
When I were a lad… we were taught the sequence of history. It might only have started in 1066, but that rote learning gave us a framework on which to hang deeper study. It might have been an overwhelmingly English framework, but I feel no need to apologise for my schoolmasters of old. They in turn had grown up in a place and an era of Imperial hubris, a time when God was an Englishman and had commissioned the British to civilise the world in their image. My offspring react with understandable horror to the mores of Empire, since in today’s era of the educational project or module, they have little understanding of trajectory or context. If I try to explain the attitudes of British society in my childhood, during that brief era between the end of Empire and the advent of mass immigration, they react as if I’d tried to deny the holocaust. They can describe immensely important subjects like the slave trade, but have no knowledge of the origins of their own people.
So what has all this to do with writing fiction?
At the risk of sounding grandiose, history is the backstory we all share. Villages in my part of England can often be traced to a Saxon warlord who chose the spot to ground his spear and plant his generations. That winding country lane has probably been there since an ox cart found the easiest route through the woods. Those invaders, settlers, and opportunists were storytellers, not writers, and they told their stories in the West Saxon tongue that would become the first global language, Ænglisc. They kept their own history alive in legends, some of which yet survive. Beowulf, Weyland the Smith, and Weyland’s brother Egil or Ægl who married the swan-maiden Olrun. Historical fiction was a dominant cultural force millennia before publishers called it ‘genre’ and eased it into the literary sidelines.
Personally, I like to write stories that have an echo of the past; not so much historical fiction as history in fiction. So I set Saxon’s Bane in a village called Allingley, which would have been Ægl-ingas-leah or ‘the clearing of Ægl’s folk’ in Anglo Saxon, a sleepy village on the banks of the Swanbourne. It was fun to reach back to the origins of the Ænglisc and to bring a legend to life in the present day. They’d have been just like us, those distant ancestors. Their fear would have been the same, even though the aggressor carried an axe rather than a machine pistol. All it takes to go back there and to make history come alive is a framework of facts and a little imagination. The imagination that sees an old veteran, perhaps, who sits by a fire and stares dewy-eyed into his mead, and says to the youth in the rushes at his feet, ‘now, when I were a lad…’
“Nú, hwonne ic waes cnap…”