Viking World 2016 – Public Lectures

So, this blogging thing’s not going well for me, but I do finally have something relevant to talk about!

A few weeks ago, on Monday 27th June, I travelled back to Nottingham, my postgraduate alma mater, in order to attend two very interesting public events about writing historical fiction. These events were held as part of the international conference called The Viking World: Diversity and Change. Sadly I wasn’t able to attend the whole thing, or even any of the academic parts at all, but if you’re interested like I was feel free to browse #vikingworld16 on Twitter for some very exciting live tweets, photos and summaries of papers. I think next year I’ll be putting some holiday and money aside just in case another Anglo-Saxon/Viking era conference comes along. I do miss academia a lot.

So, I did at least get to go to these talks! I’m going to talk about the second one first, since I got so engrossed in what Dr Victoria Whitworth was saying that I forgot to take any notes, oops…

As a result, I have less concrete things to say about this one. Everything will be paraphrased and unreliably pulled from my memory. Broadly, it was a fascinating talk about how she started writing historical fiction. Unlike the other writers invited to speak in the roundtable (more on them in a bit) her first novel, The Bone Thief, came about by accident. She was struggling to figure out a certain area of research in her academic writing, and gradually realised that, well, if there weren’t enough facts and too much speculation for academia, there were certainly enough facts and speculation for a historical novel.

She calls The Bone Thief and its sequel the Traitor’s Pit (check them out more here) archaeological fiction. Her PHD thesis was focused on burials and the journey of death: to quote her university page,”the development of the concept of Christian burial and associated beliefs and practices in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian England” as demonstrated by her academic publication Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England. The excerpt she read from to us from her novel involved the characters trying to dig up a saint’s bones. The books seemed much more based around the real life detritus of graves, bones and material remains than the “typical” research areas of documentation. More on that topic in the roundtable. Victoria also said some interesting stuff about how writing historical novels had influenced her academic writing and made it more creative. I’m vey annoyed that I can’t properly talk about this lecture and make it sound as a cool as it was. That’ll teach me not to make notes.

To the first event, the writers’ roundtable!

The Writers

(all descriptions are taken from this page of the Nottingham university website, where you can also find links to the authors’ individual websites)

Justin Hill: “[his] fiction spans eras as distant from one another as Anglo Saxon England to Tang Dynasty, China. His work has won numerous awards, including the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, a Betty Trask Award, as well as being both the Sunday Times and the Washington Post Books of the Year. In 2014 he was selected to write the sequel to the Oscar winning film, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, due for release in 2016. An engaging and inspiring teacher, Justin now teaches Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. “

Victoria Whitwood: “After going to school in Nairobi, New York, London and Letchworth, Victoria read English at St Anne’s College, Oxford, did an M.A in Icelandic Literature at the Centre for Medieval Studies in York followed by a D. Phil in the English Department. She has published a wide range of academic articles and a book (Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England). Her current research is on the Viking Age sculpture of Britain and Ireland. Victoria is also the author of The Bone Thief and its sequel, The Traitors’ Pit. Set in 900AD after the death of King Alfred the Great they tell the story of a young cleric Wulfgar, his adventures and conflicted loyalties.

James Aitchison: “… born in Wiltshire in 1985 and studied History at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he developed a special interest in the Middle Ages and the Norman Conquest in particular. Sworn Sword is his first novel, featuring the knight Tancred and set in England during the turbulent years following 1066. Tancred’s adventures continue with The Splintered Kingdom and Knights of the Hawk. The Harrowing, James’s fourth novel, will be published in 2016”

Helen Hollick: “… lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon. Born in London, Helen wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era, she became a ‘USA Today’ bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based adventures with a touch of fantasy. As a supporter of Indie Authors she is Managing Editor for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews, and inaugurated the HNS Indie Award.”

The roundtable was led by Professor Matthew Welton.

Here I took lots of notes. So many notes. I scribbled away like I haven’t done since I was a baby first year who thought that was what you did in lectures.

Five pages of this!

For this one, then, I am pretty confident that I have the broad brushstrokes of a lot of what  the writers said (with the weird exception of question two …)


Q: To what extent do facts get in the way of the story?

Helen: I wrote my book Harald the King because I wanted to know how the people felt, such as Emma, which then led to discovering facts. You can always make up the unknown!

James: Yes, in the medieval period there are lots of gaps. I try not to alter facts, but history isn’t tidy and sometimes you have to massage dates. For example in my book, The Harrowing, I used the maximum damage projection for the desired post-apocalyptic feel, but scholars will give you lots of different estimates.

Victoria: A historical fact is a rather slippery thing. I would never let facts get in the way.

Justin: What’s the deal you’re making? How important are the facts? They are very important to me, because I believe that historical fiction is good at educating people in areas that they wouldn’t open a textbook for. [In order to avoid getting facts wrong] In my book I used a framing narrative, so that Harold only tells the reader what he considers important.

Q: Have you ever been called out [for getting facts wrong]?

Helen: Yes, many people emailed me about my use of “cornfed horses” which is actually an English phrase!

[Other writers had all been called out by readers. Justin is one of the people likely to email!]

Q: What sorts of research did you do?

James: A week in Cambridge University Library, updating my knowledge. You can’t fully specialise in one area, in order to write convincingly your have to know a little bit about everything. I read everything I can, and absorb as I go.

Victoria: I’m the opposite; I bash out the story first, find out what I don’t know and then research that. Facebook is useful for me, since up in the Orkneys I don’t have as many available resources.

Justin: I found that I kept stopping my writing because I didn’t know enough to properly flesh out characters’ lives, for example what objects are in this room that they have entered? The only object I can think of is a comb! That’s the hard stuff, the immersive detail  of world creation. However since you need to avoid sounding like an encyclopaedia, most of your painstaking research disappears when it hits the pages.

Helen: I’m not from an academic background, so what I love is the story. I come up with ideas and characters first, read the history, and then flesh it out from there. I agree with Justin that it’s the little details which matter. How did they deal with being cold and wet, for example?

Q: Do you use medieval texts in your research/Do you show that Old/Middle English was spoken at that time?

Victoria: To address the second point; I found this so interesting that my writing stalled! I had a West Saxon and a Mercian character, and I wanted to show them encountering these different dialects, different languages, without alienating the reader. I used unusual, old-fashioned words to get this feel across.

Justin: In my book Shieldwall I avoided Norman French and archaic language, and wrote in simple English, using etymological dictionaries to check words. For example, native speakers have an inbuilt sense of the difference between “kingly” and “majestic”. There will always be words you’ve missed, always be mistakes, and the whole process is an artifice anyway.

Helen: It’s a fiction story. It should entertain, not be hard to read and understand. [Like Victoria] I slip older words in for believability, and personally I don’t use contractions, or words like “OK.”

James: For the first point [using medieval documents] I ended up getting into Beowulf and other Old English poetry. I’d studied them at university but not understood what was great about them as an art form before now. As one of my characters is a poet, I enjoyed coming u with poetry for them; giving an idea and a flavour without being a stickler to OE poetical form. My characters also discuss Beowulf and other poems which I like to think would have been in circulation at the time.

Justin: I find medieval documents useful for contemporary description, for example of the seasons. I found Maxims I and II to be good for that.


Q: Is academic writing compatible with creative writing?

Justin: I came at it the other way around! My PhD supervisor is very frustrated.

Victoria: Yes, it’s important to avoid your inner PhD supervisor when writing creatively; you are allowed to break all the rules! There are two big barriers which academic writing puts in your head when you start being creative: 1) that your fiction needs to be worthy and educational and 2) that writing must be in a particular rigid structure.

Q: Are mythological/supernatural elements important in your writing?

Helen: I’ve collaborated in a fantasy version of history, called “1066 Turned Upside-Down” based on what-ifs. Yes, fantasy is important but it is still important to get your facts right.

James: I have to understand contemporary characters’ attitudes towards religion and superstition, etc, in order to flesh characters out. This is more important to me than getting exactly the right sword, for example.

Q: Did anyone learn a skill in order to write it?

Victoria: been learning the drop spindle technique for about 10 years! I’ve also sheared sheep and cleaned the fleece, etc.

Helen: Oh, it’s very clear when authors have never been on a horse before!

Q: How do you decide on the portrayal of actual historical figures?

Helen: I loathe Duke William, so I found his scenes very, very difficult to try and remain unbiased in.

Justin: As long as you’re not in the heads of those characters you can describe them however you like, really, you’ve got a lot of license.

Q: How to show research without info-dumping?

Justin: Relate the information directly to your characters’ experiences.

Victoria: Forget most of your extensive research! Put yourself in the character’s shoes and know enough to put in that one telling detail which shows you understand your topic.

Q: How can we get youngsters reading more historical fiction?

Helen: Well, how to get all kids reading anything?? Fantasy can be a useful starting point to build on, as can taking them to see actual historical sites with books based on them.

James: There’s lots of good historical YA out there! Kevin Crossley-Holland, for example!

Q: Most readers are clueless about history, so how much do you feel the need to educate them?

Helen: If the story is good then it might persuade them to find out the facts! School history was very boring for me, it was novels that drew me in.

Victoria: Yes, it’s about world building. Is it good to read?

Q: [Christina Lee]: What more can academia do to encourage this sort of to and fro between historical fiction and historical study?

Justin: Well, I’d say it’s doing pretty well. Look at us, here! More of the same, please.

James: Remember you can contact authors easily online now using social media

Victoria: Make more publications open access!


My thoughts on the roundtable:

It was encouraging to hear them almost universally say that a good story should come before the facts, and amusing to hear about how all the detailed research and all that effort often disappears into the story unnoticed. The question about medieval language was very cool, since my interest in my MA was always in the interplay between Old Norse, Old English and Middle English, and Justin made a surprising point about using the Maxims and the like for contemporary descriptions. And of course, I wholeheartedly  agree with Victoria that it would be wonderful if more research tools were out in the open rather than hidden behind paywalls.

All in all I was inspired by all of these authors, and maybe I’ll start posting some 12th century-based fiction here soon.




Viking World 2016 – Public Lectures

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