Extract from my new Work in Progress

I’m in the last stages of editing my new book which is a sequel to Land of Blood and Water. This is set four years after King Alfred’s victory at Ethandun and follows the adventures of Ulf and Inga who are now making their way in the world.


LONGSHIPS Mideltun, Kent, Easter 883

Ulf bent and examined his horse’s hoof.

‘It’s looking better,’ he said.

‘Be as good as new in a day or two,’ the blacksmith said. ‘But you’ll need to go gently with her.’

Ulf straightened and smiled. ‘I will. You’re the best smith and the best horse-healer I know, Cuthred.’

The smith smiled. He guessed that despite Ulf’s youth he already knew a great many smiths. One of the King’s own thegns would.

A sound of quarrelling reached their ears. ‘Hunsige and Siflaed again,’ Cuthred said. ‘And on Easter Day at that.’

Ulf groaned and stepped out into the sunlight.

Hunsige and Siflaed stood in front of their cottage, screaming at each other. Their neighbours paused in their work to watch and listen. It was one of the best entertainments in the village.

Lilla the priest, an earnest young man, came rushing towards the couple, his hands held out in a placating, calming gesture. Hunsige and Siflaed ignored him, trading insults like the doughtiest of warriors.

The priest stepped between them, Hunsige gave him an angry look and punched him in the eye. Then he slapped Siflaed across the face, sending her sprawling in the dirt. She struggled to her knees, eyes blazing, her own fists raised, then fell back again in a daze.

‘That’s enough,’ yelled Ulf. He strode towards them, uncertain that he had enough authority for his command to be heeded in such a heated situation.

He never found out.

‘Northmen,’ came a cry from the fields. ‘The Northmen are coming.’

Ulf stopped mid-stride and turned towards the river.

Five longships were speeding up the river.

Ulf stood open-mouthed in astonishment. Since the defeat of Guthrum’s army no Danish ships had sailed a river south of the Thames. His mind whirled. Perhaps they’d been sailing from East Anglia and got lost. No sooner had he wondered this than he doubted it. Northmen never got lost, their paths were always intentional. It meant they were spying out the land. Or even worse.

He observed the ships as they got closer. They were certainly not knarrs, the Viking trading craft. These were longer and leaner; dragon-ships, stallions of the sea, with space for only warriors and weapons. He calculated that each ship would carry forty warriors.

‘Get my sword,’ he cried to Cuthred.

The longships crashed against the river bank and two hundred armed warriors leapt to shore.

‘Find some weapons, men,’ Ulf cried. ‘Axes, knives, hammers, scythes.’

He raced across to the priest who was staring at the ships in horror.

‘Gather the women, children and old men,’ Ulf said. ‘Lead them into the forest. We’ll try to hold them off.’

‘There’s too many of them,’ Lilla said. ‘You won’t be able to.’

Ulf swallowed hard. ‘So hurry.’

Men raced into the village from their work in the fields and joined those who had darted into their homes for anything they could use as a weapon.

Ulf glanced at the little band, a score of terrified peasants without a sword or spear between them, preparing to fight two hundred savage warriors well armed and ruthless. Every man knew they would be cut down in moments. But those moments might just give their loved ones time to flee and hide.

Ulf smelled the familiar stench of piss and shit as the men’s bowels and bladders opened where they stood.

Cuthred thrust Ulf’s sword into his hand and shouldered his heavy hammer. ‘We’re dead men,’ he said.

‘So are some of the Danes,’ Ulf said.

And with that he leapt to the attack.

The Danes had been so eager to attack they did not come in one compact body. They came in a long line with the fastest leading the way, yelling and whooping with excitement.

It gave the villagers a brief opportunity to fight.

Ulf struck the foremost Dane, his sword piercing the man’s throat, killing him instantly. He withdrew the blade and slashed at the second warrior, hacking his arm to the bone, felling him to the ground. Cuthred appeared at his side, his hammer struck and a third Dane fell, his skull crushed into a hideous shape. Ulf feinted to the left and plunged his sword into a fourth warrior’s guts.

He heard a roar of fury as the villagers charged. The nearest Danes slowed, a handful of men, realising that they were outnumbered. In an instant the villagers fell upon them.

It was a brief and frenzied attack.

‘We’ve killed ten of them,’ Cuthred said with joy.

‘Only one hundred and ninety left then,’ Ulf said.

He looked towards the river. The Danish captain had halted the headlong charge and now gathered his men into a long shield-wall stretching to either side of the village and beyond.

They began to beat their spears upon their shields, a thunder of noise which rose across the village like a taunt and a threat of destruction.

Ulf glanced towards the forest. The priest, Lilla was on the fringes of it, shepherding the last of the women into the trees. Or not quite the last. Siflaed, still groggy from her husband’s punch, remained on her knees in front of her hut, unnoticed and forgotten.

There was nothing he could do about her, no means of protecting her. But he could try to save the rest of the village.

‘Run, men, run,’ Ulf cried.

The villagers turned and fled towards the forest. Ulf hoped against hope that the women and children had gone far enough to be safe. He pushed Cuthred away and turned towards the Danes. He was lord of the village. He would remain and hold off the Danes alone.

The Danish shield wall had all but engulfed him when a loud, gruff voice ordered them to stop. The Danes halted within a few steps of hearing the command, a sure sign they were well disciplined.

But not all of them. One man leapt from the shield wall, screaming a taunt. He turned towards his own line, eager to see how they would admire his challenge.

Ulf seized the chance, hurtled towards him and sliced open his neck while his gaze was still turned.

A rumble of anger came over the Danish wall and three warriors, friends of the fallen man, strode out to put an end to the fight.

Posted in Dark Age England, Historical fiction, Uncategorized, Vikings | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

My Writing Place(s) by Carol McGrath

Today, I’m delighted to have a guest post by my friend, Carol McGrath. Carol is a very successful historical novelist and is one of the most supportive writers around. This piece made me more than a little jealous. It gives an insight to where she writes and the way in which she goes about writing. There are links to her books at the end.

Over to Carol.

A Writing Retreat in Greece


What is a writing retreat? Is it a physical space, a state of mind or both? I have several physical places where I write, both the Greek Mani and a village in Oxfordshire, but the true retreat really is when I withdraw from the everyday world into one that allows my imagination to flow. That is when I can recreate historical landscapes and people them with my version of historical characters. They are real personalities who once walked the earth and imagined ones who live in my head. To write, I have to be in a place where I am relaxed and can, with ease, paint scenes with words but I need to be in a state of grace to write  and, as this is not my usual state of mind, when it happens it is special.

Writing an historical novel is all about research and transferring that into a fictive form. It is all about excavation and burial in order to recreate a convincing historical world, peopled with interesting personalities as well as owning an engaging narrative. It takes me a year to research a novel and another to write one. After that, a considerable time is spent editing with my editor helping this stage along.

Researching is the easy part. I love it and as I live close to Oxford, I can use the Bodliean Library where I explore primary as well as secondary source material. I was fortunate in that much of the research I undertook for my debut work, The Handfasted Wife, set in the aftermath of 1066, served me well as a basis for the two companion novels in this Trilogy- The Swan-Daughter and The Betrothed Sister.


I use pen and notebooks for research. I label my notes carefully and keep them on shelves in my study along with the huge library of research books I have gathered over the years. One thing I learned on a PhD programme at Royal Holloway was to meticulously note down the book’s provenance and the precise pages from which I extract material.

Some research books and notebooks accompany me to the Greek Mani every year. This is where I find my state of grace. We drive down in the late spring and back in November. I am back and forwards in-between but then I fly. We permanently rent a stone house in the southern Peloponnese between the sea and the mountains.


It is an overgrown country cottage, covered with honeysuckle and bougainvillea. We have views of the Gulf of Messine from our windows and we can walk or cycle to the sea and to local villages.

I have written the best part of three novels there. It is quiet and though I have many friends I have few distractions. I can just be. It is where I focus best. I plan a book in three acts with lists and especially characters.



I often write with pen and paper before transferring the work to my lap top. I keep a notebook with character notes for each story. When I am ready to begin, I write into the story for about 10k words to get my characters into my head and after that I stop, plan in more detail and review those initial chapters. I don’t write a lot in a session. I break sessions up. Of course, I further review during the editing stage, of which there are a considerable number. Importantly,  after the first lot of words, the characters are with me and I am off. If I believe in my characters, hopefully my readers will as well.

Kardamyli is a perfect place to write. Paddy Leigh Fermor wrote here, as did Bruce Chatwin on occasion. Chatwin’s ashes lie buried outside a small, difficult to find, Orthodox Church in the Taygetis Mountains above my house.


These mountains hold hidden villages in their folds, the homes of a proud people who farm and keep sheep and goats in caves and in rocky pastures as well as in their olive groves. It is an older way of life, a slower pace, yet by no stretch of the imagination are these people poor. They own a rich culture and love to sit outside a café shooting the breeze of an evening over coffee, ouzo and wine. Many of them run successful bars, cafes, restaurants down on the coast during summer.

I am part of a small writing group. On Wednesday evenings, we play scrabble under the trees and, during August, writing friends from England come out To the Mani, stay, write and join in. That is when my house is a true writing retreat with the vibrant exchange of ideas.

At the moment, I am in England, working on publisher edits for my latest novel The Woman in the Shadows, an historical fiction about Thomas Cromwell’s wife Elizabeth.  It will be available on August 4th 2017. Accent are also republishing the successful Daughters of Hastings Trilogy with beautiful new covers, maps and family trees. After this, I am contracted to write three novels about medieval queens. I have researched the first and hope to begin writing it over the coming months. I know, of course, that the place where I shall discover my state of grace for the next novel will be my writer’s retreat in The Greek Mani.

My Links




Follow me on Twitter @carolmcgrath




Thank you, Martin, for inviting me to ‘speak’ on your blog. I very much enjoyed mind travelling to the Hellenes as I wrote it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this and other posts as much as I have. If you’re an author and would like to share your writing place with readers please get in touch and book a slot. If you’re a reader and would like me to invite a favourite author to contribute please let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

Posted in Author's Writing Places, Historical fiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Stephen Carver – Where I Write

I’m really pleased to have Stephen Carver as my guest blogger today. I first knew Stephen when I enrolled on an online Creative Writing course at my old university, UEA. It was an excellent course and I was very pleased to keep up my friendship with Stephen over the years. I was equally pleased to read his novel Shark Alley. I’m a great fan of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels and Shark Alley has lost of similarities to these. Stephen is continuing the good work of teaching a variety of online courses for Unthank School of Writing and he’s kindly included a link to this at the end of the article.

Today, Stephen’s going to tell us about where he writes.


When I started working on the project that became Shark Alley I still had a fifth-floor office at the University of Fukui, writing at an old metal desk by a huge window, its massive concrete sill cracked by earthquakes, looking out across a vast cityscape towards snow-capped mountains and the Sea of Japan.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI finished it in a much less dramatic setting, a cold downstairs study at the back of our house overlooking a wild garden in an unfashionable suburb on the outskirts of Norwich, the hometown to which I returned, taking a teaching post at the University of East Anglia. The most exciting part of my view now is an old wooden shed. This has become a home/office which I guard jealously against any suggestion from my wife that it would make a better bedroom for our son. Because I now work exclusively from home I spend more time in here than is probably healthy. My schedule is largely in synch with my kid, so I work when he’s at school, often returning to my desk at night after he’s gone to bed to focus on my own writing rather than online teaching or manuscript appraisal, which constitute the day job.

As a writer, I have a straightforward rule: I must add some new words to a draft every day. When I’m working on a big project, I will keep a weekly word count. Planning and research is done as and when, and if I have any downtime I’ll be reading. I’m not opposed to discovery writing, but I like to have a rough idea of where I’m going. I’m never really off the clock, and am constantly running story ideas and scenes in the back of my mind, keeping careful notes. As far as inspiration goes, most of the time I don’t see it coming and it’s rarely planned. I’ll be doing one thing and thinking about something else and it’ll happen: disparate elements will momentarily collide and suddenly there’s an idea. I write this down, think about it, and then try and write some more. As long as I don’t break the ‘everyday’ rule, the magic happens. Oh, and coffee. Lots of coffee, and the occasional small sherry.

My study is quite small, and I cannot deny that there are ‘man cave’ elements. I have an ergonomic L-shaped desk, a Charles Jacobs ‘Three Level Workspace,’ and a generic office chair with a broken cylinder base that I’ve rigged with a narrow drainpipe and duct tape. I always have my leather motorcycle jacket thrown over the back of it; an ancient, battered thing that makes me feel oddly secure. I’ve always worked on generic/custom PCs, upgrading every couple of years, and aside from a brief flirtation with Linux a few years back I’ve stuck with Windows and the latest version of Microsoft Office. I have a big AOC monitor, balanced on a very old, beige plastic stand. This is a relic from the days of the Commodore Amiga, which I need to keep my screen at eye-level and thus be kind to my back. It has a tray that I can fill up with unfiled paperwork and the various glasses I must now switch between to do my job. There are two ‘Deadstone Valley’ figures on top: a zombie pirate and Victorian soldier. These were the Shark Alley mascots, the protagonist being a writer of penny serials about pirates who finds himself in a real sea story while travelling on the doomed troopship Birkenhead.


I also have the Sky router stuck on my desk, because the damn thing doesn’t work right on the floor, and a Panasonic cordless phone that goes off every time I try to concentrate. Decent reading light is provided by a crane-like standard lamp that followed me home from work after my previous employer made me redundant. I like to listen to old music when I work, so I have two cheap speakers that are filled with dancing jets of LED-lit water for no adequately explored reason. In fact, my whole computer lights up. There’s a clear plastic window in the base unit emitting an eerie blue glow, as does my keyboard. I also have a figure of the Metalunan Mutant from This Island Earth (1955) that my son gave me for my birthday along with an ‘Interocitor,’ the alien machine Rex Reason has to build in the movie as a test of intelligence. These are very important. If asked where you get your ideas you should always say, ‘You need an Interocitor.’

Desk - Landscape

Otherwise, my workspace is crowded with old mugs full of pens and pencils, because I still draw when I can, as well as assorted screwdrivers, penknives and general dad stuff. I love Mitsubishi ‘Uni-ball’ pens in red, blue and black for annotation, and have been destroying books with these since my student days. As well as being practical containers, the mugs are here so they don’t get broken. My favourite has a photo of my wife and son on it, and I’m also particularly attached to a set of Japanese tea cups covered in fiery kanji I can no longer read, Victorian jam jars dug up from a bottle dump when I was a kid, and a stoneware mug fired by my friend Rob in a kiln he built in the garden of a strange little country cottage we shared thirty-odd years ago that we got because the previous tenant had killed himself so no one else would rent it. I used to see him at night sometimes, a look of utter despair on his face.


To my right, the entire wall is shelved and packed with books, and this carries on around the room to the door, with an old metal filing cabinet and monolithic cupboards to my left full of stationary, data disks, comics and vinyl records. I keep my working books close, aside from the really posh ones which are out the front. I have all the scruffy stuff in here: weathered paperbacks with cracked spines and wrinkled covers full of post-it notes and scribbles, mostly history, reference and teaching material, and an eclectic mix of old and new fiction. There aren’t any pictures in here, because there simply isn’t any wall space.

I try to keep it neat and organised, but it always feels cluttered, like the interior of a 1950s radio set or the back of a Morris Minor. Most of the random knick-knacks end up under the monitor or on the window sill, a museum to my jackdaw fascination with shiny things. There’s an old bullet belt up there, tat-filled tobacco tins with exotic names like Rubicon Mixture, Adkin’s Nut Brown, and Brankston’s Golden, a brass control lever for a vintage BSA, a Bakelite Ovaltine mug full of shark’s teeth, and a compact army telescope that may or may not have belonged to my grandfather. My kid’s stuff keeps creeping in as well, so there’s always Lego and plastic dinosaurs lethally scattered about the laminate floor.

A couple of new boxes have also recently found a place in here. These contain the unpublished poems of my old friend Colin Phillips, who died of cancer late last year, and his late friend, the poet and mathematician Brian Higgins. These guys were part of a group of post-war British Modernists known collectively as the ‘Soho Poets’ that also included George Barker, Martin Seymour-Smith, and Oliver Bernard. Colin had inherited Brian’s work, and he was very worried about its fate at the end of his life, much more so than his own unpublished material. At the family’s request, I am now editing both collections with a view to publication. I like having them here; it makes Colin feel close.

So, that’s where I write. When I was a kid growing up in a tiny council flat I always hoped that I might one day have a study full of wise books and interesting things, a bit like Professor Van Helsing or my friend Maria’s dad. While this isn’t the wood-panelled private library of my childish imaginings, when I look back to scribbling away on the floor in damp and smoky bedsits when I was a grad student I would have to concede that this isn’t too bad, as long as I keep the curtains closed and ignore the state of the bloody garden.

Shark Alley


Dr Stephen Carver is a cultural historian, editor and novelist. For sixteen years, he taught literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, spending three years in Japan as Professor of English at the University of Fukui. He is presently Head of Online Courses at the Unthank School of Writing. Stephen has published extensively on 19th century literature and history; he is the biographer of the Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth and the author of Shark Alley: The Memoirs of a Penny-a-Liner, a historical novel about the wreck of the troopship Birkenhead. He is currently working on a history of the 19th century underworld for Pen & Sword, and a sequel to Shark Alley.


Shark Alley – ‘Re-imagining the Victorian Serial’

Confessions of a Creative Writing Teacher – Author Blog

Essays on 19th Literature & The Gothic – Academic Blog

The Unthank School of Writing – Online Creative Writing Courses

You can buy Shark Alley by clicking on the following links:


Posted in Author Interviews, Flashman, Historical fiction, Uncategorized | 1 Comment


I’m in the middle of updating my blog pages. It’s been an informative process because I realised how many more books I’ve written since the last spring clean.

And, as spring comes, I’m going to include some more blog posts where writers let us into the secrets of where they write. It’s fascinating to see the work spaces and working methods of some of the most excting writers around.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Christmas Short Story

Here’s wishing you Season’s Greetings and a Happy New Year.

I’m posting here a short story which I hope you enjoy. It’s bitter-sweet, and based on fact.



Margaret, Frank and the two boys moved into their new house in the week before Christmas. It was everything Margaret had ever wanted: a living room with kitchen large enough to eat in, bathroom and separate toilet and three bedrooms so Neil and   Robert could have a bedroom each. Best of all, the living room had two windows. From one window Margaret could glimpse the Downs billowing like a green ocean. From the other she could see a real sea, a stretch of silver coast with busy boats dashing here, there and everywhere.

‘It’s lovely isn’t it Frank,’ she said.

‘If you say so,’ answered Frank.

After tea, Neil retreated to his room and put on his record-player. He was fourteen and from that day on the rest of the family rarely saw him. Robert, who was eight, bubbled with excitement and took a lot of persuading to go to bed. He did so eventually and Margaret went to his room to say goodnight. She sat on his bed and looked around. His bedroom was tiny, little more than a box. It was filled almost entirely by his bed.

‘What do you think of your room?’ she asked anxiously.

‘I love it, Mum.’

‘You love it?’

‘It’s fantastic. It’s like a space-ship. Everything’s close to hand and safe but when I land in the morning I’ll be on a new world.’

Margaret smoothed the wayward hair from his eyes and kissed him goodnight. ‘I’m glad you like it,’ she said softly. For she loved the house every bit as much.

The next day, with the sound of Neil’s music humming in the background and   Robert out exploring the neighbourhood, Margaret made a well-deserved cup of tea and settled into her armchair. She gazed out of the window at the boats skimming along and gave a sigh of deep content. ‘This is perfect,’ she murmured.

‘If you say so,’ said Frank.

The door opened and a strange man walked in. Margaret sat bolt upright and stared at him suspiciously.

‘Can I help you?’ she said in an icy tone.

The man smiled and drew up a chair. He was in his sixties, short and a little overweight, bald except for a small line of greying hair.

‘I’ve come to see how you’re settling in,’ he said.

Margaret’s eyes narrowed dangerously. ‘We’re settling in very nicely, thank you,’ she said. ‘If it’s any business of yours.’

She glanced at Frank, hoping he would say something. He remained silent.

The stranger smiled again. ‘Well, I’m glad you like it.’

An uncomfortable silence filled the room. At last, unable to bear it any longer, Margaret waved at the window. ‘It’s a lovely view,’ she said. ‘I love the sea and the boats and ships.’

The man glanced out and for a moment looked puzzled. Then he murmured, ‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.’

‘Must you?’ asked Margaret. Then she frowned, for his words invoked a memory which she almost grasped but in the end proved elusive.

The man stood up. ‘I’ll let you settle in peace,’ he said. ‘But I’ll come again tomorrow.’

‘That’s very nice of you,’ said Margaret although she was horrified at the thought.

The man left and Margaret rounded on her husband. ‘You should have said something to him, barging in here like that. A stranger. You should have said something.’

‘If you say so,’ said Frank.

The next day, after lunch, Margaret and Frank were chatting about the boys and at how well they had settled into the new house when the door opened and the bald man came into the room.

He drew up a chair. He beamed at Margaret and placed a box of chocolates on her lap. She stared at them nervously. Why was he giving her chocolates?

‘They’re your favourites,’ he said. ‘A little moving-in gift.’

Margaret did not answer. In truth, she was affronted at the temerity of the stranger. He walked in to her house without a by-your-leave, sat himself in one of her chairs and now presumed to give her chocolates. She shot a glance at Frank who, as usual, did not respond.

The stranger began to hum a little tune to himself. She eyed the chocolates greedily. He was right, she thought, they were her favourites.

The man followed her gaze and held out his hand for the chocolates. ‘Shall I open them for you?’ he asked pleasantly.

‘I’ll have them later.’ She paused and licked her lips. ‘Thank you very much.’

The stranger half rose from his chair and peered out of the window. ‘You’ve got a lovely view,’ he said. ‘Lots of trees and flowers.’

‘It’s the sea I like best,’ Margaret answered. ‘I’ve always loved the sea.’

The man did not answer for a moment, as if he was considering her words deeply.

‘It’s a good job you like the sea considering you were a Wren,’ he said at last. ‘All the ships you must have been on in your time. It’s a bit more peaceful now. No Luftwaffe attacks, no bombings.’

Oh no, thought Margaret, another war bore. It was bad enough living with Frank and his endless tales. She had done her bit as a young girl but she rarely spoke about it to anyone.

She looked at the man. She found it hard to imagine him acting in any military capacity with his chubby frame and bald head. But perhaps he looked different in his youth. She tried to visualise him as a young man in uniform but failed to conjure up any image.

‘Were you in the Forces?’ she asked at last, more out of politeness than any real interest. ‘In the War?’

‘Of course not,’ he said.

Margaret sniffed. Probably a conscientious objector or someone who worked in munitions. Then she did a quick calculation and became a little more forgiving. ‘Maybe you were too old for active service.’

‘Maybe,’ answered the stranger enigmatically.

Another silence fell. ‘Don’t let us keep you,’ Margaret said at last. ‘I’m sure you’ve lots to do.’

‘I expect you’re tired,’ said the man. ‘I’ll be back on the big day.’

He got up and bent towards her. She raised her hand to ward him off. He shook his head, smiled and kissed her hand very gently.

‘The cheek of it,’ she fumed once he had left. She flung the chocolates at Frank. ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you say something? It’s always the same with you.’

‘If you say so,’ said Frank.

The next day was Christmas. Once the stockings were opened, Margaret prepared the dinner. Neil moaned about having to eat while Top of the Pops was on but Margaret insisted.   Robert, on the other hand, tucked in to his dinner with his usual gusto. I must watch him, thought Margaret, he’s a bit greedy and he could easily run to fat. They watched the Queen’s speech and then came the big moment, the lengthy ritual of opening presents.

At that precise moment, the stranger walked in, laden down with presents and accompanied by a woman of about his age.

Margaret was furious. How dare he intrude on such an occasion? This was a time for family and nobody else. She meant to say something, to tell him to leave. Yet there was something in his eyes, some gleam of kindly enthusiasm which persuaded her to remain silent.

The stranger and the woman drew up two chairs and pushed gift after gift upon Margaret. She was astonished. Eventually she was prevailed upon to open a few of them. There was a lovely silk scarf and a beautiful bottle of perfume. ‘It’s your favourite,’ said the bald man, ‘spray some on.’

Reluctantly at first, Margaret sprayed a little on her neck. Then she caught the lovely scent; it was indeed her favourite. Delighted, she began to spray herself with wild abandon. The two strangers smiled as they watched and then, chuckling slightly, the bald man leant over and took the bottle gently from her.

‘Have you got anything for him?’ Margaret asked, nodding towards Frank.

The stranger looked pained, presumably at forgetting, and did not answer.

‘Well he can have some of mine,’ said Margaret, passing some gifts to her husband.

A carol service started on the television. The stranger laughed a little and pulled his chair close to Margaret. She looked at him askance but, as it was Christmas, decided to let it go.

They watched as the choristers sang joyously. Then, the strains of ‘Away in a Manger,’ began and the stranger cried with delight and began to sing along with the words.

‘Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,     

The little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head.’

Margaret turned towards him in astonishment. His voice was familiar but she could not place it. It was high-pitched and unmelodious but somehow it stirred her heart. She had heard it before somewhere, she was certain of it, but she could not recall where.

‘The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,’ the stranger continued.

Then he turned to Margaret and with increasing volume sang: ‘And little Lord Jesus eats all of the cakes.’

Margaret blinked. Her fingers touched her lips. A naughty boy made those words up and always made her laugh by singing them to her. A naughty boy. She frowned, trying to trap the memory which darted like a running hare in front of her.

Then she turned towards the stranger. ‘You’re my son,’ she said.

Robert reached out for the hand of his mother. It was soft and frail yet she squeezed his with a fierce pressure which surprised him.

‘You used to be young,’ she said. ‘What’s happened to you?’

‘I’ve got a bit older.’

Margaret glanced round her little nursing home room, at the bed with safety rails, at the one window with a view not of the sea but of a garden, at the empty space where she believed Frank, long deceased, still sat beside her. And she smiled.

‘I love you,   Robert,’ she said.

‘I love you too, Mum,’ he said.


Posted in Love, Uncategorized, writing | 9 Comments


I’m delighted to have as guest blogger the novelist Giles Kristian. Giles has an interest in the Anglo-Saxon period but has also strayed into the English Civil War period, one which is fairly sparsely written about in comparison to its importance in history.

Giles has returned to Anglo-Saxon times with his new book, so why not check out his new bone ‘Wings of the Storm’ (Sigurd Book 3) which came out on 1 December.

Now, let’s see where Giles writes.


Hemingway and Churchill wrote standing up. That’s good enough for me, I decided, thinking of all the man-points I could earn. So I had a carpenter knock me up a little table which sits on top of my desk. Yes, I realise I lost man-points by not doing the woodwork myself. Anyway, turns out my screen was still too low, which is what happens if, like me, you’re not much of a planner. No matter, an Amazon click or two later and…problem solved. image1

A folding stand on top of the little table on top of the desk. It’s unlikely to feature in HOME&DESIGN magazine, but considering how expensive stand-up desks are, I think it’s a pretty neat solution. So I wrote God of Vengeance standing up. Yes, for the man-points and the additional calorie burn, but also because I had this idea that being more mobile at the keyboard might result in more vigorous and dynamic prose. It’s a journey story, physically, spiritually and emotionally, as well as brimming with general Viking-type activities – you know, rowing, fighting, carousing, pillaging etc – and it just didn’t seem fitting to me to write it sitting down in my embarrassingly comfortable chair, in my slippers. Or, was it because my kids weren’t sleeping at the time and I feared that if I sat down first thing in the morning I’d fall asleep?

That was four books ago. These days I’m mostly back in the comfortable chair. I co-wrote a book with Wilbur Smith so the man-points are in the bag. I have a writing cabin, which some might call a glorified shed (they would be wrong of course) which is made of cedar and smells delicious. The folding glass doors provide the sort of view that is to the cluttered mind what a cold beer is to a thirst. Fields, trees, sky. Plenty of space for the imagination to wander, but then there are the characters who inhabit that space. The clamorous rooks thronging the distant, skeletal beech trees. The buzzard being mobbed by a pair of crows. The stoat bounding across the grass in front of me on some secret mission. The pheasants and their ambling exodus from the distant thump of shotguns to the south. Squirrels stashing acorns like monks burying treasures at cries of ‘The Vikings are coming!’ The robin on a nearby fence post, watching over me like the soul of a deceased relative. The barn owl who, if I am really lucky, perches on a post in the boundary fence, looking for voles in the long grass.

The gardener saw a muntjac deer the other day. I hope he’ll visit today (the deer, not the gardener). The animals never seem to know I’m here and so I observe, which is as much a novelist’s job as writing. I might not know which day of the week it is sometimes, but I notice the little things; the scarlet wax caps sprouting on an old tree stump. The green moss festooning the tiers of an espaliered apple tree, which reminds me of the partially shed velvet on a stag’s antlers. The far-off spear-rattle of ash trees in the wind. For me, sprinkling these little observations into the tale is like the seasoning of a dish.


I love witnessing the seasons turn from here in my hideaway. I like autumn better than summer. The musky sweet scent of decaying leaves. Damp wood and days that never seem to get going. I find it all so atmospheric and sad and beautiful and inspiring. I’m often cold in here because the oil heater takes a while to kick in, and my hands are made even more clumsy than usual on the keys, but then it’s often cold in my stories too. On winter afternoons I like to have a candle burning on my desk, though I’ve just inherited an old oil lamp and look forward to getting that up and running. In the summer I open the doors right up. Only then my word count suffers, as I spend half my time sparring with wasps drunk on the windfall of fermenting apples and out to cause trouble.

Sometimes I find silence too heavy and so will listen to classical music or movie soundtracks. To complement the Viking writing there’s nothing better than Norwegian folk/ambient group Wardruna. They use traditional instruments such as deer-hide frame drums, goat horns and lur, as well as other sources of sound like trees, rocks, water and flaming torches. The atmosphere they create is spellbinding. As for the writer clichés, coffee is indeed my word fuel and I’m not against a glass of red if I’m working late. Perhaps on the more unusual side, when I feel I need a break I like to throw axes. It’s therapeutic. The sound and feel of those axes embedding in a log round is almost as satisfying as when, after wrestling with a defiant line of prose, you read it aloud and say, ‘Yep, that’s the one.’





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Matthew Harffy – Where I Write

Today, I’m delighted to feature a guest post from Matthew Harffy. Matthew has published, to great acclaim, two novels in his series The Bernicia Chronicles: The Serpent Sword and The Cross and the Curse. The third book: Blood and Blade will be published on 1 December with further volumes in the spring and summer.

I really enjoy his novels, they’re some of the best I’ve read so I was really pleased that he is able to tell us where he writes.

When Martin Lake asked me to write a blog post about where I write I chuckled to myself. You see I don’t write in any one place. When I started writing my first novel, The Serpent Sword, I wrote on my trusty desktop PC at home, but once I got seriously into the novel I quickly realized a laptop was essential. Being mobile meant I could write anywhere, even if I only had a few minutes free. My daughters were young and attended lots of clubs. There was Taekwondo, brass band practices and dance classes, and then of course there were the all-too-frequent birthday parties, often in echoey warehouse soft play centres (and if you have never been to a soft play centre on a rainy day during the school holidays, consider yourself lucky to have escaped that particular screaming-child-infested circle of hell). On each of these occasions I would find myself reading a book or perhaps chatting to other parents who were in the same situation as me, waiting for their children to finish and to ferry them to the next event. It’s not like I didn’t enjoy talking to the other parents, but after a while there was only so much small talk with practical strangers I could manage. I worked out that if I used all of the hours every week when I was waiting for my kids to finish things, I could make progress on the novel that had been bouncing around inside my head for so many years.



So I bought a laptop and set about writing whenever I had thirty minutes or an hour spare. Many writers say they need absolute silence to write. I am not one of those writers. However I do need to be able to blank out distractions. To this end, I plug in my earphones and I listen to classical music, film soundtracks or even nature sounds, such as thunderstorms, rain or waves on a beach, basically anything that allows me to focus fully on the blank page before me. I can’t really get in the zone with music with lyrics, as the words tend to distract me.


Using this technique of focusing quickly and writing in short bursts, I have now written four novels and a novella in many diverse places. I wrote most of The Serpent Sword sitting in the back of my car parked outside village halls while the sounds of slightly out of tune instruments wafted on the breeze, or perched on the benches at the edge of noisy gymnasiums whilst my daughters practised kicks and punches of a Korean martial art.


As my writing became more serious, I took to writing more frequently and therefore in more places. From memory I have written parts of the Bernicia Chronicles on trains, in my car, hotel rooms and airport departure lounges in India and Israel, planes, libraries, on my kitchen table, in my spare bedroom (which is where I do most of my writing when at home), in my living room, in bed, and probably in a few other places I have forgotten.


I think I’m lucky to be able to focus quickly and to get words down on the page with minimal fuss. But I wonder if this necessity to write in small windows of time hasn’t actually helped condition me to write quickly. As I know that I will often have to concentrate my work into short bursts of energy, I try to map out my novels in advance. I break down the plot into chapters and each chapter into scenes. This means the when I sit down to write, even if only have forty-five minutes, I know what I need to be writing next. I read what I wrote last time, making small changes and edits as I go, and then I get straight into the next scene or the continuation of the one that I had left unfinished.

So, I suppose the answer to Martin’s question of “where do you write?” is really, “on my laptop”! Where my laptop is, isn’t all that important.

Image copyright attribution:

All photos copyright Matthew Harffy, except “Practicioner breaking board with side kick in Taekwondo promotion test” which is in the Public Domain.


Author info:

Matthew Harffy is the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of novels set in seventh century Britain. The first of the series, The Serpent Sword, was published by Aria/Head of Zeus on 1st June 2016. The sequel, The Cross and The Curse was released on 1st August 2016. Book three, Blood and Blade, is due for publication in December 2016.

The Serpent Sword and The Cross and the Curse are available on AmazonKoboGoogle Play, and all good online bookstores.

Blood and Blade, Killer of Kings and Kin of Cain are all available for pre-order on Amazon and all good online bookstores.


Website: www.matthewharffy.com

Twitter: @MatthewHarffy

Facebook: MatthewHarffyAuthor


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