Icel began life as a young lad whose only thought was to become a healer. Circumstances are making him a warrior, although he still retains much of his healing knowledge. His world has grown from just Tamworth to the wider kingdom of Mercia and also some of the neighbouring kingdoms. He’s lost his only surviving family member but is beginning to find a new family, that of his band of warrior brothers. I know what Icel will be like as an adult, as he’s a character I’d already devised for The Mercian Kingdom: The Ninth Century series, and so it’s hugely enjoyable to build him up to that person. The older Icel is a very different man from the one readers of The Eagle of Mercia Chronicles currently know.
What is your favourite part of writing about Anglo-Saxon England?
I have two favourite parts. One is the challenge of bringing the era to life by making my characters resonate with modern readers. The second is the joy of the source material. It’s so sporadic that the scope for the imagination is huge, and it means I can keep a firm grip on my cast and their titles. I don’t have to worry about a royal court the size of that in Tudor England or later.
What are the challenges of writing a novel set in the ninth century?
There is very little information about the ninth century, as it falls between the time that Bede was writing in the 730s and the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from about the 880s onwards. This is both a challenge and an open book. It involves making many leaps of faith in stringing together a plausible narrative that makes sense of what went before and what comes after. There’s also the problem of reconstructing the landscape and population. Where were the rivers? Where were the settlements? How did people live and interact with one another? Here our obsession with huge armies of Viking raiders ransacking the UK really has to be tested against what is known from archaeology. I find I build on my knowledge every time I write a new series. Icel is a healer, so I needed to research that. In other series, I have people of the court and men and women who are purely warriors – every one of them needs a different angle and more research. With the lack of available information, it really is a matter of knowing where to look for the answers to my questions and, sometimes, knowing when I simply can’t follow a possible storyline because I can’t find the answers to them.
What is your research process like? Do you use primary sources in your research?
I always use primary sources in my research but to different effects. With The Eagle of Mercia Chronicles, the lack of available resources was the impetuous to try and make sense of what might have been happening in Mercia at the time, squirrelled together from a few entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and from the surviving charter evidence. I’ve also been writing my version of a chronicle for the beginning of each subsequent book in the series to remind readers of what’s happened before. That’s interesting as well because the chronicles are often suitably terse.
The Eagle of Mercia Chronicles has an impressive cast of characters. What tips would you give to aspiring authors when crafting realistic and engaging characters?
I’ve always been quite scared by a vast cast of characters – how to keep track of their names and what they’ve done in the past so that they don’t contradict themselves. I’ve started keeping spreadsheets of my characters to know where they are, what they’re doing, and, more importantly, how they’ve been injured in the past. But this is a process I undertake in the editing stage when I like to double-check everything. I find it very useful, even if it’s not very user-friendly. For the names of my characters, I use indexes in non-fiction books. And have to be wary because certain first name elements, such as Æth or Ea, tend to dominate. I try and find unusual names but keep them authentic.
What other historical novels have you enjoyed recently?
I read a lot. I have a very active blog where I review books. I like to read Golden Age crime novels to give myself a rest from warriors and war. But that doesn’t stop me from reading in my era and genre. Recent novels I’ve enjoyed include Dan Jones’ Essex Dogs and Simon Turney/SJA Turney’s Roman and Viking era books. I especially enjoyed Domitian and The Capsarius. And I’ve just read an excellent medieval mystery by Elizabeth R Andersen called The Alewives.
What can we expect from Eagle of Mercia, the upcoming fourth book in the series?
The first draft of Eagle of Mercia is already written, so that I could tell you the entire plot, but I won’t. There will be more peril and enemies to fight, and Icel will continue to grow and discover more about himself as he forges alliances and cements a few enemies as well. There will, of course, be battles to fight, and Brute will be there, Icel’s horse.
Can you tell us about any ideas for future novels?
I have quite a few series on the go, but my next big project is to write about the very earliest years of Saxon England, probably set during the sixth century. I’m really keen to explore what the landscape (political and physical) would have looked like as the era of Roman Britain came to an end and Saxon England began. I have two great non-fiction books to dive into, Max Adam’s The First Kingdom and Lost Realms by Thomas Williams. I just need to find the time.
Interview by Chantelle Lee.