A Writing Year in Review – 2020

It’s been a funny old year, I think we can all agree on that. While, at times, I’ve really struggled to focus to write, I’ve also been lucky to chance upon a good number of characters that I really enjoy writing about – Coelwulf and his comrades – not that it makes it easy, but it makes it enjoyable, sometimes in a sick and twisted way. So here goes, a review of just what I’ve been up to during the weirdest year in living memory.

For the first time with any great degree of consistency, I’ve tried to track what I’m doing on a day to day basis. It’s been intriguing, but only lasted for about a third of the year, you’ll see why as we go.

I finished A Conspiracy of Kings, the sequel to The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter in January, ready for release in February. I’m really pleased I returned to Lady Ælfwynn because it moved my mind onto the project I’d been considering writing for a few years – about King Coelwulf of Mercia. I think that if I’d not written A Conspiracy of Kings, Coelwulf might still be waiting for me to start his story. But luckily, I did start to write about him in January, with a scene that has still to make it into any of the books, and in February I started with how I hoped to begin the story. Looking at my notes for the year, once I’d started writing the first book, it was all a bit of a whirlwind and a first draft was completed by the end of the month. One day I wrote 10,000 words. It seems he was really in my head. Those two years of thinking about writing about him, had paid off with a great character just waiting to come out of my imagination.

I’ve said elsewhere that there were quite a few influences on The Last King, the film, The Gentlemen directed by Guy Ritchie, the one that really made me think I should do anything I wanted with the storyline – make it bloody, make it brutal, make it sweary, and give it the ‘hook’ at the very beginning of the book. Another influence was the idea of a sportsperson at the height of their game – someone so good that they don’t really consider it anymore, and in fact, are a bit surprised that others aren’t there with them – that was the sort of warrior I wanted Coelwulf to be – already fully-formed with no backstory to wade through before getting on with the story of ‘right now.’

After finishing The Last King, I immediately pressed on with the follow-up, which became The Last Warrior. By now, it was March, and my part-time job as an exam invigilator was about to be suspended for the rest of the year – and of course, we were about to be plunged into Lockdown Part One. I had Coelwulf and pals to keep me going – and keep me going they did. By 8th April, my diary states that the first draft of The Last Warrior was complete, and I’d placed The Last King on Netgalley because I was really curious to see what people thought about it. I’d also reached out to a few people and given them advanced copies to read. The response was overwhelmingly positive as reviews started to trickle in throughout April. But now I turned my mind to Lady Estrid, and the eleventh century in Denmark.

Map of England in the 870s – a compilation of roads, rivers and places – and a nightmare to research and put together in one place.

Again, Estrid was a character I’d considered writing about for some time. She was a bit part character in my Earls of Mercia books, but she seemed to me the perfect vehicle for writing about comparable events in Denmark, as opposed to England, in the eleventh century.

I am fascinated by all of the Scandinavian countries in the ‘Viking’ Age, and beyond. But, I’m certainly no expert on what was happening.

My diary says I started writing the book on April 9th, but I know I’d written about 5000 words in February (to enter a competition that I didn’t win:)). I gave myself about two weeks of working on Lady Estrid, a breather as it were, and then went back to the edit for The Last Warrior. I know some people wait months between a finished draft and an edit, but I don’t like to wait quite that long, although I do think even a little bit of ‘distance’ can help the process. At this point, with very little else to do due to Lockdown, my notes become really detailed about editing and words added, but I won’t bore with those little details. Suffice to say, I’m normally someone that adds words rather than deletes them throughout the first edit – I tracked the words added, but not deleted, and how many pages I edited in a day.

At this point, I was also hoping to do a quick edit, and finish off my NaNoWriMo project from the previous November. Throne of Ash is a historical fantasy, and goodness me, it has bedevilled my year. So much so that I have it to thank for the number of books I’ve written about Coelwulf. At the moment, it just doesn’t ‘work’ and I know it just doesn’t ‘work’ and I still can’t quite work out how to make it ‘work’ but it will. Eventually. Or it won’t, and it will just continue to drive me a bit bonkers. But hey, I’ll share a mock-up cover all the same. (I like to have the cover designed before I start a book.)

The Last King was released on 23rd April. The next day, I began work on book 3 – which at the time I was calling The Last Lord, which quickly changed to The Last Sword, and then became The Last Horse. Throne of Ash was pushed aside, and so too was Lady Estrid. The women in my life, (Throne of Ash’s main character is a woman) were giving me grief. Coelwulf, Rudolf, Edward, Pybba and Haden were much easier going – the banter, the fighting, the ‘scenario’ – it all just fit what I was able to write at that time.

I know what you’re thinking – I was slightly over-achieving at this point – don’t worry, it’s all about to come to an abrupt stop because Lockdown was about to change. I’d had a month where not much had been any different, (I’m a writer, I write, I spend most of my time at home anyway) but now my other-half was furloughed and now began the great ‘walk,’ which I’ve also spent much of the year doing (a walk almost everyday building up to the point where I now go for my walk, rain or shine, sleet or snow.) Now my routine really suffered, and would continue to do so for months. It’s not a complaint, but I’m aware that I need my routine to accomplish all the tasks I set myself. I was still trying to write every day but my word count was down to 1000-2000. But, at least the story still wanted to be told.

By the middle of June I was doing a final edit on The Last Warrior, and the book was released on 25th June, just as The Last Sword had become known as The Last Horse, and I was happy that the first draft was complete. By 1st July, I’d noted in my diary that The Last Horse was ‘completed.’

People were really enjoying The Last King, and by the time The Last Warrior was released at the end of June I had three times as many preorders as I’d had for my ‘new’ series.

By now, some of the restrictions had been removed because Lockdown had ‘allegedly’ come to an end, but I remained local, although this was when my weekly, and now twice-weekly, walks at Cragside began. This was also when I attended (virtually) the International Medieval Congress hosted by Leeds University. I spent an enjoyable week attending so many talks and really reconnecting with my love of academic history. I purchased many, many books on my time period, and really hope they do the same next year, as it meant I could keep up with my almost daily walks.

I was also back to Lady Estrid, and editing The Last Horse, both must have been finished in August, but there’s a note on 11th August saying that Lady Estrid was ‘finished.’ (It wasn’t, but that’s a story for later on – I thought it was finished.) I turned my mind back to the next book about Coelwulf.

But, big things were happening for The Last King throughout the summer months. I’d managed to get an international BookBub deal for it and I’d taken the book on tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club (check here for details of the posts) and was also running a promotion on The History Quill in August.

The Last Horse was released on 27th August, and now I’d had more than double the preorders that I’d had for The Last Warrior, which had been triple the preorders I’d had for The Last King. I think my readers liked Coelwulf – and so did I.

By now I’m into September, and I had to have day-surgery to remove half of my thyroid, so again, things slowed down a bit – although I used the experience when writing The Last Enemy. And I was also into Tier 3 restrictions. By now, my notes have become really sporadic and I can’t track what I was doing to any degree of accuracy as earlier in the year. I think everything was coming off the rails a little bit – two difficult books, surgery, which knocked me more than I thought it would, and Lockdown. It wasn’t easy going with the writing and it was started to frustrate me – I needed my routine back but it was to be a few more months before it returned.

I’d spent my time pummelling Lady Estrid into submission. It had taken a great deal of time to edit, and I’d also written many more words from when I’d so confidently stated it was ‘finished’ in August. The ending was changed, the beginning was changed and I added to many more of my characters. I think in the edit I added about 15k words, and removed some of the elements that were giving me bother.

At some point, I finished The Last Enemy, and was back to editing it, and Lady Estrid, making use of Netgalley and The History Quill, was about to be released to a mixture of feedback – a bit of a Marmite book but one I was really pleased with. It had been a hard slog, over six months of thinking and writing about it, and with a bit of inspiration from Anne O’Brien’s The Queen’s Rival, I hoped I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do – a history of Denmark from the 1020s to 1050 – through the eyes of Lady Estrid, and her large, and extremely influential, far-flung family.

And then to November and NaNoWriMo once more. Did I think about finishing last year’s abandoned project? I didn’t, not at all, but instead took myself to the 1940s for a project I’m calling The Custard Corpses, and also a return to the Earls of Mercia books. Throughout November, I got my ‘routine’ back. I remembered all the restrictions I needed to place on myself to achieve what I wanted to achieve, the fact I prefer to write in the morning, and the knowledge that I can easily write at least 2000 words a day, even when I don’t really want. (I take part in NaNoWriMo every November and have done since 2013. I can’t stress how good it is for reinforcing all the things I know, but often forget, and because I always allow myself to step aside from my usual writing projects, how freeing it can be.)

At 50k, I put The Custard Corpses to one side, and powered through The English King – another story that took a while to find its way – but which did with enough ‘routine.’ The Last Enemy was released at the end of November, and the number of preorders continued to exceed my expectations, as did the number of people reading and reviewing and rating. Thank you to you all.

And to top the year off, I’ve also had the copyright restored to me for the second Earls of Mercia book. It’s a long and tedious story, but suffice to say, it was all reedited and rewritten during 2019 but I only had the paperback rights, and now I can release it in ebook as well. So, The Danish King’s Enemy is mine once more – a new name, a big section rewritten, a new cover, but still the same old Ealdorman Leofwine. If you’ve read one of the previous incarnations, please consider popping a review on the new one. It would be a huge help. And if not, it is in Kindle Unlimited, and it’ll be on special offer at the end of January 2021 too.

I can’t say I’m unhappy with what I’ve written in 2020, but it has been a challenge – not just because of events in the wider-world but also because my characters didn’t always behave – I’m looking at you Lady Estrid, and Throne of Ash.

But, 2020 has been fantastic in terms of the readers and reviewers that I’ve met along the way. I couldn’t have done it without them encouraging me on – demanding to know ‘what next’ for Coelwulf. I’m grateful to have been able to interact with them, and it’s shown me how powerful Netgalley can be, if the book finds a willing audience. I’ve also discovered a huge array of non-fiction books that I’ve been using to help me with my works in progress – and for that I’m grateful to the VIMC in Leeds. Without that my passion wouldn’t have been reignited and without that, I wouldn’t have powered myself through Lady Estrid, and she might well be mouldering in a corner, like other, abandoned projects.

For those thinking that I’ve written too much this year, remember, it has been Lockdown for nearly nine months, in my head, if not in others. I’ve only had my characters to distract me from the wider world. As a comparison, I released seven books in 2019, two of which were largely written in 2018. In 2020 I released six books, one of which was written in 2019, and another book which is ready for January 2021. I’ve managed about the same workload – I have suffered with my routine, and my motivation, but have taken great joy in the response my books have received.

And so to 2021. I have three books to edit and finish, and then I’ll return to the world of Coelwulf. I hope you, as my readers, will stay with me, but if not, thank you for spending 2020 with me. I hope I’ve managed to distract you from events outside our own front doors, and I will continue to try and do so. If you want to follow me, I have a newsletter which can be joined here.

Stay safe, people. I hope 2021 will be ‘better’, although I think for many of us ‘better’ is not quite what we once thought it would be.

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Lady Estrid is on ‘tour’ with the Coffee Pot Book Club – check out the posts so far

Lady Estrid has taken herself on tour with the fabulous Coffee Pot Book Club. She what she’s been up to, and thank you to everyone for hosting her, and the Coffee Pot Book Club for arranging.

November 2nd Mary’s Tavern (Excerpt)

November 9th Gwendalyn’s Books (Review)

November 16th Judith Arnopp’s Official Blog (Excerpt)

November 23rd Brook Allen’s Official Blog (All about the historical Lady Estrid)

November 30th Sylv.Net (Excerpt)

December 7th Madwoman in the Attic (Review)

December 14th Elizabeth St John’s Official Blog (Interview)

December 21st Let the Words Shine (Five facts you didn’t know about me)

December 28th Candlelight Reading (Excerpt)

January 4th The Writing Desk (Letter writing in the eleventh century)

Lady Estrid is available now in ebook and paperback.

Thank you to all the hosts for allowing Lady Estrid onto their blogs, and to The Coffee Pot Book Club for being so, so, so good at organising everything. Thank you.

(This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means that at no cost to you, Amazon rewards me.)

Lady Estrid, her family and the geography of the eleventh-century

One of the big plusses for choosing the character of Lady Estrid for my most recent novel, was her large and illustrious family and their far-reaching influence over Denmark, Sweden, Norway and England. It meant there was already an excellent story to tell.

While I quickly managed to slot all the different relatives into order (well, I have been writing about them for a while), I’m aware it’s not the easiest of tasks, and so, I have put together some genealogical tables of the main families to make it that bit easier.

Due to a lack of information, I have made little mention of the rest of Estrid’s half-sisters, of which she had three or four. I feel it perhaps also helped the story a little – it was complicated enough as it was without giving them the capacity to meddle in affairs in Denmark. I have also made the assumption, that because I don’t know who they married, that they didn’t make international alliances, as Estrid did.

To break it down into more palatable chunks, Lady Estrid’s mother was married twice, once to King Swein of Denmark (second) and also to King Erik of the Svear (first). King Swein was also married twice (in my story at least – as it is debated), to Lady Gytha (who I take to be his first wife) and then to Lady Sigrid (who I take to be his second wife.) Swein was king of Denmark, Erik, king of the Svear (which would become Sweden), and so Sigrid was twice a queen, and she would have expected her children to rule as well, and her grandchildren after her. Sigrid was truly the matriarch of a vast dynasty.

She would have grandchildren who lived their lives in the kingdom of the Rus, in Norway, in England, and Denmark.

And Sigrid wasn’t the only ‘double queen.’ Lady Emma, twice queen of England, was first married to King Æthelred and then to King Cnut, Estrid’s brother.

Not that it’s possible to speak of Lady Emma’s children from her two marriages, without considering the children of her first husband’s first marriage. King Æthelred had many children with his first wife, perhaps as many as nine (again, a matter for debate), the below only shows the children mentioned in Lady Estrid. Readers of The Earls of Mercia series, and the Lady Elfrida books, will have encountered the many daughters, as well as sons.

One of the other family’s that had the most impact on Lady Estrid, was that of her third husband, and father of her two sons, Jarl Ulfr.

Ulfr had a brother and a sister, and while little is known about the brother, it is his sister who birthed an extremely illustrious family, through her marriage to Earl Godwine of Wessex. (The family tree doesn’t include all of her children.)

Four such powerful families, all intermarried, make for a heady mix.

For the modern reader, not only are the family dynamics complicated to understand, but so too is the geography. Sweden was not Sweden as it is today, and the reason I’ve insisted on calling it the Land of the Svear. But equally, Denmark was larger than it’s current geographical extent, covering Skåne, (in modern day Sweden) as well. The map below attempts to make it a little clearer. Norway is perhaps the most recognisable to a modern reader, but even there, there are important difference. King Swein claimed rulership over parts of Norway during his rule, and so too did King Cnut. But, Denmark isn’t the only aggressor, there were rulers in all three kingdoms who wished to increase the land they could control, King Cnut of Denmark, England, Skåne and part of Norway, is merely the most well-known (to an English-speaking historian.)

Lady Estrid is available now in ebook and paperback, and there will be more fascinating facts when the book goes on ‘tour’ for the next ten weeks starting from 2nd November.

(Amazon affiliate links are used in this blog post.)

New Release alert – Lady Estrid – a novel of eleventh-century Denmark by M J Porter

Today (29th October) sees the release of Lady Estrid – a novel of eleventh-century Denmark. It’s not an addition to the Earls of Mercia series, but readers will certainly recognise many of the main players, even if their story is being told from a different point of view.

I’m going to be taking Lady Estrid on a blog tour, starting next week (November 2nd), and there will be some exciting excerpts, author interviews and inspiration posts, so look out for the posts.

Right now, I’m going to share the blurb with you.

“Daughter, Sister, Duchess, Aunt. 
Queen.

United by blood and marriage. Divided by seas. Torn apart by ambition.

Lady Estrid Sweinsdottir has returned from Kiev, her first husband dead after only a few months of marriage. Her future will be decided by her father, King Swein of Denmark, or will it?

A member of the ruling House of Gorm, Estrid might not be eligible to rule, as her older two brothers, but her worth is in more than her ability to marry and provide heirs for a husband, for her loyalty is beyond question. 

With a family as divided and powerful as hers, stretching from England to Norway to the land of the Svear, she must do all she can to ensure Denmark remains under the control of her father’s descendants, no matter the raging seas and boiling ambition that threatens to imperil all.”

Lady Estrid is available as an ebook and a paperback, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

UK

US

AUS

CA

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