Wednesday, 12 June 2013

New Ulf of Leystoke story: 'The Morning Gift'

There's another in my Anglo-Saxon short story sequence out today.  In The Morning Gift, the ironsmith Ulf of Leystoke has been working at Hunlaf's forge for two winters and longs to return to his home village. Haunted by the memory of his dead wife Hroswitha, killed in a Viking raid, he still needs a wife. Is Hunlaf's daughter Goldrun the answer?

Previous Ulf stories are Starlight and The Cross of St. Mary's. All are available from Smashwords, Amazon and the usual retailers.

Buy The Morning Gift from:

Amazon UK


The small town of Hemingburh had once been smaller still, a market held on a crossroads. From the windblown top of its only hill, where the Meeting Tree stood, an aging elm with its own green around it, a man could see the snow-covered road through Hedbarrow down to the coast opposite Wales or far inland almost, they said, to the far edge of Wessex.

Even in a world hardened to Welsh raids and to serfs being sold into slavery to the Irish, the Danes were feared here in the west even more than drought, storms and famine. Alfred of Wessex had ordered Hemingburh enlarged and walled, and the aldermen had brought landowners together and seen it done. For all the new houses, the mill by the stream, the square new church near the top of the only paved street, the people went back to meeting at the sentinel on the hill, the tree whose leaves had more than once been boiled and eaten when the crops failed.

So far this was a hard winter and the weather had closed many of the roads, so there was peace. Rooks hung on the leafless woodland trees like dead fruit, or rose and settled again like flies on a dungheap. Fields outside the wall lay under hard frost, waiting for the first cut of the plough. Smoke rose sullen from thatched roofs into the chill air.

In Hunlaf’s forge beside the paved street the hearth had been dampened down for the night. In the small house adjoining it the ironsmith, his wife Estrid and daughter Goldrun sat over a brighter fire and watched Ulf of Leystoke, a reliable apprentice if older than most, face his hardest task.

Hunched over a small table, his hair and beard dishevelled and a rhythmic muttering coming from his lips, he was clearly struggling.

‘It’s a good candle,’ Goldrun said gently. ‘We mustn’t waste it, Ulf.’

Ulf lifted his finger from the book, stretched brawny arms up towards the rafters of Hunlaf the ironsmith’s house and yawned. It was hard work, this reading, a task he had been happy to ignore when he lived in Leystoke village. ‘My eyes are tingling from the smoke.’

Goldrun put her hand on his shoulder, feeling the coarse fabric of his shirt. ‘When a man who works iron says that, it really is time to stop. You’re doing well.’

Ulf glared at the page. An army of curlicued ink letters marched relentlessly across the finger-marked parchment in intimidating rows. There was a picture of a bearded saint in the corner. The saint had his hand up in admonition.

Hunlaf looked up from stirring the fire. ‘Why do it? I don’t need it. Something to tally numbers, that’s all I need, and the priest can write for me.’

‘Because he’s curious,’ Estrid said, and poked her husband with a spoon. ‘Unlike some. And we have a clever daughter who can teach him. Am I right?’

‘Quite right,’ Goldrun said. ‘Pinch out that candle, will you, Ulf?’

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Music to write by

Right now Brahms is on the CD player as I write this, but it could be Mozart or Shostakovich,  Delius or Prokofiev. I’m energised by the right music and there’s a wide selection on my shelves.

I grew up in the days when you were either a Beatlemaniac or a Stones fan, and I admit to having been a bit of both (typical Libra). But when university loomed and I shared lodgings with others, I had a bit of a conversion. I spent my first year glued to Radio Caroline as it bobbed illegally in the North Sea, with its constant plugging and adverts in Canadian accents for Russian-sounding watches, interspersed with Pentangle, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends LP, Jethro Tull and others, but in my second year I discovered Beethoven.

It was a fellow-student with a set of the piano concertos that started me off. Pop was fun, jazz was fun too, but classical seemed richer, deeper and wider, and from that time on I’ve mostly been exploring its main streets and byways.

Twelve years ago we moved house, and my vinyl went to Oxfam. In the years since, CDs and downloads have more than caught up with my old collection and expanded it into composers hardly acknowledged by us non-specialists before the CD revolution made them easily available.

Whatever music I write to has to be familiar—in other words, I must have played it a few times before I can settle to writing alongside it. The collection grows, however. In the last few weeks I’ve added Koechlin’s haunting piano suite Les Heures Persanes (a composer I knew nothing about until hearing an excerpt on the radio), the Brahms piano quartets that are playing now and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K.364, a piece which makes me want to cheer every time I hear it. The Mozart I had years ago but somehow never got around to replacing it until recently, and it returned to the fold like an old friend.

It doesn’t matter if it’s relaxing or bracing, so long as I’ve already heard it a few times. I’ve written while listening to Schubert, Schumann, Vaughan Williams, Bax and Elgar, to piano music by Villa-Lobos and Mompou, to Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc, to the symphonies of Martinu, to Philip Glass, to Beethoven’s string quartets and Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. The music never loses its magic.

The only music I can’t write to is vocal, though I own and enjoy plenty of it otherwise. No opera, no songs. Something about the human voice takes too much attention away, so part of me has to stop writing to take account of the virtual human in the room. Sorry, but there it is.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Why write historicals?

I write mostly about two periods of history, ancient Greece and early medieval. One choice stems from a classics background at school and university and subsequent visits to Greece, but the other?

I spent a lot of time as a boy being taken around old buildings and archaeological sites, an interest I was happy to share with my parents. In Devon, where I was born, and Cornwall, where we spent several holidays, there is a lot of history both ancient and medieval: Bronze Age and Neolithic settlements, a Roman legionary HQ in Exeter, Cornish churches founded by early saints. I soaked it up and grew up hooked on history, so that is what I write.

I admit that my stuff is a hard sell and a bit of a minority taste. My characters are fairly down-to-earth rather than exceptional or famous. I don’t subscribe to either the old philosopher/artist/genius image of ancient Athens or the more recent bloodsoaked martial arts bashfest inspired by movies like 300. I don’t do vampires or werewolves either, though a ghost may occasionally drift past.

Diokles in A Pig in the Roses has no special skills except determination, decency, a tendency to jump in at the deep end and an unswerving loyalty to his family. He has no regular sidekick, though plenty of varied contacts: fellow-merchant, cavalryman, barber, courtesan, slave, potter. Ulf in my Anglo-Saxon short stories is no famous warrior, just a farmer seriously injured during  a Viking attack on his home, learning new skills at the forge of an ironsmith in the nearest town.

I sent MSS to publishers who couldn’t sell the period,  publishers who never replied and one who accepted (hooray!) and then went out of business—all the usual first steps. I self-publish now because I like it. It gives me control. I’m my own harshest critic, though I have another writer of historicals in the house and friends who will read my stories if I ask nicely, so I’m all set up with criticism before publication. I can use a spell-checker. My covers so far are my own work, using my own photographs (thank you Olympus, thank you Paintshop Pro).

And there are no deadlines, which is perfect. I spent years doing the nine-to-five on other people’s deadlines, so never again. Tonight, after a sunny Friday massacring bindweed and digging over the old strawberry patch outside, I’m writing this. Tomorrow I’ll do some more on the next Diokles story. Self-publishing suits me.