I’m delighted to welcome Annie Whitehead as guest blogger for my series Where I Write. Annie writes novels set in the Anglo-Saxon era, a period where many of my books are set. In fact, we’ve both written books which feature Aethelflaed, the daughter of Alfred the Great. I’ve put a link to her books and blog at the end of the post, together with links to where you can find her books.
Over to you, Annie.
I had three kids in under four years. That’s not a boast, or a complaint; it’s just a fact. It meant that any attempt at writing was a bit like a bank robbery in an Ealing Comedy film – smash, grab, hope for the best, but expect that the getaway car will have four punctures.
It got a wee bit quieter during the playgroup and primary school years, but by then I was rushing between four part-time jobs, as a freelance Early Years music teacher. I would write, with a fountain pen (I love the smell of Quink!) in Paperblanks notebooks, leaving notes for myself, so that if I had to rush off mid-idea, or mid-scene, to the next job, or to do the school run, I would be able to pick up where I left off. These three books contain the first draft of Alvar the Kingmaker, (my second published novel, but in fact the first book I wrote.)
Life moved on; with such a small age gap between them it wasn’t long before the kids were all at secondary school, and I was able to progress to the modern age. I bought a lap top, which quickly became so outdated that I didn’t dare connect it to the internet, so I got a little Chrome Book, too.
With longer school days, I was able to commandeer the dining room table, stopping at 4pm when the kids came home.
Nowadays the house is an empty place. Just as the kids went off to school in quick succession, so they left home equally swiftly. Recently I celebrated securing a new teaching project and a publishing deal by buying a new computer. I also swung the table round 90 degrees. Since the two of us can comfortably eat at the kitchen table, this is now my desk. As you can see, now that there is no need to tidy away, I don’t.
So that’s the set-up, but the desk is not always where the writing happens. Sometimes I need to just let the ideas percolate, and I have a weekly opportunity to do this. Most of my teaching contracts necessitate my getting into the car, but I have a long-standing ‘gig’ at my kids’ old primary school just over a mile away. I always walk there, while listening to music. This is when I don’t plot, so much as tune into the emotions that the music is conveying, using that to gain insight into my characters’ make-up, their likes and dislikes, their passions and their hopes.
As you’ll see from the pictures, what passes for a main road here is often traffic-free, and being farming country, there are plenty of gates where I can stop, lean, stare and not think.
I empty my mind, stop actively thinking about my stories, and the ideas will come into the space I’ve created. The music helps; I listen intently to the words, perhaps out of respect for the lyricist’s hard work, but also because I like to understand. Thus as I walk, or lean on the gate, I become aware of the emotions driving the song and will have a moment of clarity, realising that the real reason for my protagonist’s fight with his wife is her underlying concern about something else.
When I was a child I was forever playing ‘make believe’, running through the woods as if I were Arthur of the Britons from the TV series, or acting out my own stories. The summer after I’d drafted my first book, I went on many long walks, noting what it felt like to have brambles scratch your ankles. As I scrambled down a hillside, observing how one must place one’s feet in order not to fall, I imagined my character Alvar as he ran down the hill to the village of his true but forbidden love, and how she’d feel if she were the one with those scratches stinging her legs. How would she respond to him; as a perfect heroine, or a real person, distracted by the pain? Working on To Be A Queen, and walking on an inclement day, I thought about what it feels like to trudge into the maw of a cold easterly when you’re tired and all you want to do is rest, not fight. Grown-up ‘make believe’.
Writing can be very small, sometimes. Small words, small letters. Full stops, commas. The physical act of writing is technical, and needs to be precise (well, eventually, after the first to umpteenth drafts are done.) Outdoors, in the fresh air, the writing gets plumped up, rounded, fattened like the lambs in the fields.
It can take months, even years, to research an historical novel, and this is where I always start. I need to know the whens, the wheres, and the whos. But outside, away from the dates, the charters, the chronicles, that is where I find my people, my characters. It’s where they become more than names in a history book. A particular song came up on my playlist just last week and I found myself considering how the female protagonist in my new novel would have felt about her grown-up sons leaving home. I fused my own experience of what that feels like, with what I know about the social expectations of her time, and got to the heart of the scene.
Yes, the research needs to come from books, documents, libraries, colleagues. The writing implements are important; fountain pen and acid free paper for long-hand, comfortable sized screen and ergonomic mouse for typing. But mostly where I write, is in my head.
Annie Whitehead is an historian and novelist, writing about the Anglo-Saxon era:
To Be A Queen is the story of Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great.
Alvar the Kingmaker is set in the reign of King Edgar and begins with a royal bedroom scandal and ends with regicide.
She was also a contributor to 1066 Turned Upside Down, a re-imagining of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor of the EHFA blog. Currently she is working on a contribution to a non-fiction book to be published by Pen & Sword Books in the summer of 2017.