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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Book Review – Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“Uhtred of Bebbanburg is a man of his word.

An oath bound him to King Alfred. An oath bound him to Æthelflaed. And now an oath will wrench him away from the ancestral home he fought so hard to regain. For Uhtred has sworn that on King Edward’s death, he will kill two men. And now Edward is dying.

A violent attack drives Uhtred south with a small band of warriors, and headlong into the battle for kingship. Plunged into a world of shifting alliances and uncertain loyalties, he will need all his strength and guile to overcome the fiercest warrior of them all.

As two opposing Kings gather their armies, fate drags Uhtred to London, and a struggle for control that must leave one King victorious, and one dead. But fate – as Uhtred has learned to his cost – is inexorable. Wyrd bið ful ãræd. And Uhtred’s destiny is to stand at the heart of the shield wall once again…”

I sometimes feel that this series of books has long since run its course, but Sword of Kings, Book 12, had me intrigued just from reading the blurb.

Lord Uhtred has firmly moved into a time period I know, study and write about, and while sometimes it’s hard to read the way another person treats ‘your’ characters, I thoroughly enjoyed the starkly different interpretation of events surrounding King Edward’s death, because, quite simply, there is no ‘right or wrong’ when writing about this period. It’s a very much anything goes scenario, and into this, Lord Uhtred, bored and old, having finally captured Bebbanburg, is allowed to take centre stage.

Uhtred is older, but not wiser, and once more, if it wasn’t for the intervention of others, he would certainly not make it to the end of Book 12, hale and hearty.

Uhtred has as many enemies as normal, and his loyalties are split, but the will is strong to enact some revenge when he realises his ships are being attacked by an old enemy he ‘s made an oath to kill. Heading South, with the news that King Edward is either dying or dead, while plague pushes its way ever northwards, there’s a great deal of time spent on board ship. There’s a battle on a ship, and then another battle, and then there’s tides, rivers, currents, different boats, oars, sails and many other ship related activities. (It does get a little repetitive). There’s the Farne Islands, Kentish coasts, London, rivers in Mercia, London once more and then a bridge as well as a wall.

The action is pretty full-on but somewhat repetitive. Uhtred makes any number of bad decisions, and then the quest for revenge drives him on, even though it probably shouldn’t.

In effect, Uhtred turns the tide of ‘history’ once more, and not necessarily to his favour.

The old rivalries between paganism and Christianity continue, as does Uhtred’s unease with the plans the new king has for Northumbria, and for him. It’s these scenes that I find most tedious. I would like a little more nuance to Uhtred, but it seems his character will never develop more than it has. BC tries to make Uhtred appear as more than just a thug by adding a few women to the cast, as well as a host of orphans, and having his relationships with them testify that he isn’t ‘a ‘bad man’ just a righteous one who must abide by his oaths.’ Essentially, if Uhtred likes you, then that’s good, but if not, then you’re in trouble.

There are many elements to the story that I would change – the insistence on Anglo-Saxon place names being one of them, the ship ‘lingo’ another one – but hey, it’s Uhtred. You know what you’re getting from the start, and you won’t be disappointed, although you might feel a bit seasick!

Here’s to the next book.

Sword of Kings was released on 3rd October, and is available from here:

It’s release day – Kingmaker – England: The Tenth Century

Kingmaker is available now in both paperback and ebook format from Amazon.

Here’s a little sneak peek from the first chapter.

“The first sight of my husband is when I stand beside him, as we exchange vows, and Archbishop Plegmund officiates over our wedding.

Luckily, a wimple covers me, so my husband can’t see the horror on my face, although no doubt he imagines it.

He’s old. Old enough to be my father, if not my grandfather, and I am young, only just seventeen.

Neither am I his first wife, nor even his second. And neither is his second wife dead, but merely put aside, as a new, younger bride is found for him.

I swallow my revulsion.

My father would not have approved of this arrangement, but then, he’s been dead almost since my birth, and I’ve no memory of him, only the hope that he might not have sanctioned my mother’s ambitions.

Indeed, not only is my husband old but he also has children older than I. And not just one or two, but many of them, ten in total. I would have sooner married one of them, even the odious Ælfweard. He’s a boy as old as I, and yet definitely a boy, whereas I’m classed as a woman and fit to be wed to someone so much older.

Ælfweard watches me now, a twisted look of desire on his face, as I glance at the king’s many children, lined up at the front of the church. I swallow again, turning my attention back to archbishop Plegmund, listening to the words, waiting for the moment when the wedding mass begins, and I can lower my chin and allow the tears I’m holding back to fall down my cheeks.

Damn my ambitious family, and damn my mother. I blame her for my current predicament.

If my mother expects me to ensure she’s well rewarded for what she sees as the honour of marrying the king of the Anglo-Saxons, then she’s very mistaken. If it were possible, I would never see her again.

Abruptly, I feel the hands of the archbishop on my shoulders and focus on the king before me. The hollows of his eyes remind me of sand around a stone on the shore, sunken and only likely to sink deeper. But for all that, there’s some kindness, and also, and this turns my stomach, a lustful look. Whatever his sympathy is for, it’s not that I’m to be bedded by him when the wedding feast is done.

At the archbishop’s instigation, I kneel on the cushion before me, head bowed, tears continual. I do not want to be here. I do not want to be the king’s wife, and yet, I must be all the same.

I should have more rights, more say in this matter, but Edward is the king, and my family is ridiculously ambitious. They wish to have the ear of the king and to always be high in his favour, and I’m the means of securing that.

In their eyes, I’m little more than a part of the game that will ensure they achieve all that they want. The ambition of my widowed mother and her brothers disgusts me.

I am wed to the king for as the only heir of ealdorman Sigehelm, I claim more land in the ancient kingdom of Kent than even the king. And the king is a man desperate for ever more land, and even more control.”

And if you’ve not yet read The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter, the first book in my Tenth Century series, it is currently 99p/99c in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and the equivalent on the Amazon.DE, FR and IT sites.

New Release alert – Kingmaker – England: The Tenth Century

Last July, I decided to hand my notice into work to write ‘full-time’. In a fit of panic at my decision, I wrote a book in about 5 weeks. That book was The King’s Mother.

This year, to celebrate my one year anniversary, I decided to celebrate by doing the same thing! (Yes, I know, why give myself more work to do? (I don’t know)).

Anyway, I’ve loved the challenge and it is a bit of a rush to fling yourself headlong into something. So, I’m proud to present Kingmaker – the story of Queen Eadgifu of the Anglo-Saxons. She is not a new ‘character’ for me, but rather one I’m returning to, after her appearance in The First Queen of England.

Queen Eadgifu has been a joy to write, and I’ve loved the challenge of writing one novel that covers the entire lifetime of a person, as normally, I tend to stick with just a decade at most.

I really hope that you, my readers, will find Lady Eadgifu as fascinating as I have, and also, that the middle of the tenth century will feel a little more accessible.

Here’s the blurb;

“This is the tenth century in Anglo-Saxon England between the reigns of Alfred the Great, and Æthelred the Unready.

As England’s first Viking Age grinds to a halt in a war of attrition that will see Jorvik finally added to the kingdom of the English, one woman will witness it all.

Seventeen-year-old Eadgifu knows little about her new husband; he’s old, he only wants to marry her because she’s so wealthy, he already has ten children, and he’s Edward, king of Wessex. He also hopes to claim Mercia as his own.

That he’s the son of King Alfred, the man credited with saving Wessex from the Viking Raiders adds no mystique to him at all.

Many say he’s handsome, but Eadgifu knows they speak of the man twenty years ago. Her mother won’t even allow her to be alone with him before their wedding.

But an old man will not live forever. The mother of his youngest sons can be more powerful than the wife of the king of Wessex, especially in the newly made kingdom of England where king’s lives are short and bloody, and war with the Viking Raiders is never far away.

Lady, wife, queen, mother, king’s mother, grandmother, ally, enemy, amenable and rebellious.

Lost to the mists of time, this is Queen Eadgifu’s story, Kingmaker.”

Kingmaker is released on August 29th 2019 and will be available from Amazon as both an ebook and a paperback.

I am calling Kingmaker, Book 2 in a series of standalone, but interconnected novels I’ve written about The Tenth Century. The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter (Book 1 ) is already available from here and at the moment it is 99p/99c and equivalent in every Amazon territory