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In the final post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be discussing my thoughts about the finished novel. And to mark the end of this series, and for a limited time only, the ebook version of This Sacred Isle is available at half price! Click here to purchase.
Coming to the end of a book is, for me, a time of mixed emotions - satisfaction, even a little pride at having completed the task, alongside regrets about some aspects of the novel.
Writing a novel is a long process, with twists and turns, reflecting in many ways the progress of a plot. And I am always fascinated how different the final version differs from the concept I formed in my 'mind's eye' at the very beginning. Images, symbols, beats - abandoned, lost from the finished book. During this process there are bound to be setbacks and regrets - in this post I highlight one of each (trust me, there were more...), the effect they had, and what I learned from them. Oh, and to end on a positive note, I'll talk about what I feel worked best within the novel.
Although clearly the story is a work of fiction, I have tried to use real world settings for many of the key locations. Initially I placed the king’s stronghold of the Cyneholf beside the River Deben (called the King’s River in the book). On the west bank of the Deben is an area called Kingston (‘King’s town’ in Old English), which seemed a reasonable location for King Tytila’s stronghold. And frankly, from a storytelling perspective, it was easier, as I didn’t have to contrive a way of getting the characters across the river!
However, in 2014, Archaeologists announced findings that supported the idea that the royal settlement of the Anglo-Saxon kings of East Anglia was located at Rendlesham, a village several miles to the north-east of River Deben. This was a fascinating and exciting moment in our understanding of the period, but it was rather inconvenient in terms of my story…
At this point, my options were to ignore this discovery or to rewrite part of the story to relocate the Cyneholf close to the historical origins of the East Anglian kings. After some consideration, I realised I had to change the story – I could not ignore this development. Although this did entail some significant rework (and took more precious time, slowing my progress) it actually opened a new aspect to the story. I added a cameo from a character called the Boatman, a Charon-like figure who takes Morcar and his companions across the King’s River and into the area we now call Sutton Hoo, the burial lands of the Anglo-Saxon kings, a literal ‘land of the dead.’
So now, rather than actually being a setback, I feel the addition of a scene crossing river becomes a symbolic moment in Morcar’s journey, one where his world truly begins to expand, and the danger he faces increases. He moves from the quiet, contained world he has always known into the bustling heart of a kingdom, with all the machinations of a Royal court. And there his adventure truly begins...
So, I would say expect setbacks when writing your story - they are inevitable. But don't despair; they might knock you off course for a short time, but there's always a chance you'll discover a better path!
I feel This Sacred Isle has strong female characters. Slug (as she's introduced...) is courageous, intelligent and confident. With the greatest respect, I did not want her to stray into Xena - Warrior Princess territory. She's not a superhero and she's not just a tough fighter - just someone who has endured much in her brief life and refuses to submit meekly to slavery and tyranny. And for all her suffering, she does not allow her (understandable) antipathy towards Anglo-Saxons to poison her sense of justice.
Queen Eawyn is the power behind the throne of the East Angles but not in a malevolent way. She's no Lady Macbeth. I wanted to express the sense of frustration of this intelligent, shrewd woman who is constrained by the structures of her society. Eawyn is effectively forced to serve a king who, although fierce and skilled in battle, lacks her intellect, foresight and humanity. Open defiance to her husband would be dangerous - could you imagine King Tytila's reaction if he felt scolded, hen-pecked by his wife? Eawyn must seek to guide her husband's actions and decisions, to cool his warlike temperament, while all the time making him think he is in full control. A delicate balancing act!
Thinking about these characters brings me to my main regret. I wish I had had more scenes of them together - I should have done this, but again, like many ideas, many plans, this somehow got lost in the mix. It concerns me that I failed to concentrate enough on female characters. Yes, the Anglo-Saxon world was patriarchal but could I have expanded the role of women in the tale? Did I fail the Bechdel test? Hmm, possibly. Although this is a test and not a law, it serves a clear and important purpose: it prompts all writers to think about gender bias in their work. I know I need to learn from this; I know I need to do better.
Looking back over the novel I can always find elements that didn't quite achieve what I was hoping for, elements that if I did it all again, I would change. I am sure every writer who has ever lived has felt the same. Writing This Sacred Isle has taught me a lot about the craft and I feel I have more weapons in my literary armoury than before I started. I hope to take and develop these skills in my next novel, and all future novels beyond! I want to keep learning, keep developing...
So which part of This Sacred Isle am I most proud? My intention with the story was always to blend hard historical veracity with the mythical elements of the pagan Anglo Saxon belief system, and I think I achieved this. Through extensive (and sometimes exhausting!) research, I was able to gather the key information to build a credible picture of this period of history. And when mixed with mythical elements such as Thyrs, Barghests and dragons, I believe it creates a compelling setting for the tale.
But I think the part of This Sacred Isle of which I am most proud is the creation of the character of Morcar. I wanted more than just a boy who learns to become a warrior and a man, the usual a 'king-in-waiting' archetype. I wanted Morcar to feel alienated by his society, to resent and even resist what is expected of him. For me, showing Morcar's psychological turmoil, his fears, his insecurities, was crucial both to his development as a character and to the plot itself. I am pleased to see Morcar appear as a fully fledged character with, I hope, real depth - and I hope he is someone readers can identify with too.
This is the last of my 'Writing This Sacred Isle' series of posts and I hope you have found them interesting and informative. However, I will of course continue to blog regularly about a range of writing and publishing subjects. And I will post regular updates as my next novel begins to take shape...
How do you deal with the inevitable setbacks that come with writing a book? What have you learned? Post a comment - join the conversation!
In this latest post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be discussing how I approached writing dialogue in a novel set during the Dark Ages.
Writing dialogue is always a challenge, for dialogue serves so many functions and so is central to the success or otherwise of any novel. Dialogue advances the plot, provides exposition, and above all, reveals character. I believe dialogue should fundamentally come from character, and that the words they speak, and sometimes the words they don't speak, should expose their beliefs, desires and fears.
My intention (and only readers can judge if I have in anyway succeeded!) is to give each character a distinctive 'voice'. For example, Hengist speaks in a coarse, earthy manner, while King Tytila's speech is bombastic - well suited to a man drunk on past glories and not used to being challenged or contradicted. I want readers to see the characters in the story as flesh and blood, and not just authorial mouthpieces spouting stilted words - each character's responses must seem credible and in-keeping with their background and personality. Hopefully this allows the reader to move through the trappings of an unfamiliar, heightened world to better understand the motivations of the characters.
As a writer, it is important to keep a keen ear for everyday dialogue, for the rhythms and cadences of speech - I listen out for interesting turns of phrase, quirky responses and accents. However, dialogue within This Sacred Isle provided some particular challenges! In essence, the Anglo Saxon characters of this time speak a 'foreign' language (Old English), although one which was the foundation of modern English. I do not speak or write Old English, however, within This Sacred Isle I wanted to catch a flavour of this language, in particular the kennings (two-words phrases used to describe an object, usually employing a metaphor). Although not a literate people, I believe the early Anglo-Saxons had a potent sense of poetry, and it should not be forgotten that these people were settlers - perhaps their language, including their kennings, helped them make sense of their new land and gave them a link to their ancestral home in continental Europe.
When writing dialogue I always take a minimalist approach, with a sparing use of adverbs and attributions. I find this reduces the sense of author intrusion, strengthens the impact of the dialogue and provides a more natural rhythm and flow. I cut back to the barest essentials to give (where appropriate) a clipped, urgent quality to dialogue. I would not say this suits every story (nor every writer) but this felt especially true to the world of This Sacred Isle.
What do you find most challenging about writing dialogue? Please leave a comment below and join the conversation.