We’re stepping back in time today to the early medieval period in Britain. Matthew Harffy joins me to discuss his novel, The Serpent Sword.
Welcome, Matthew. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
MH: THE SERPENT SWORD is the first book in the Bernicia Chronicles. Set in Britain in the first half of the seventh century, it tells the story of a young man who is lost and alone at the start. But on his quest for vengeance for his brother’s killer he finds love, a sense of belonging and his place amongst the warriors of a Northumbrian lord. Essentially, it is a coming-of-age tale of revenge, honour, betrayal and love.
What prompted you to write about this historical event?
MH: The events are the forming of the kingdom of Northumbria, made up of the two, now mostly-forgotten realms of Bernicia and Deira. I used to live in Northumberland (what would have been part of the ancient Bernicia) and loved the area, but I knew little about the history of the area. When I saw a documentary back in 2001 about Anglo-Saxon graves being exposed near the castle of Bamburgh (Bebbanburg in the seventh century), and heard about the importance of the castle as the seat of power of the kings of Bernicia, the story just called to me and I was compelled to start writing. It took a long time to complete that first book, but I got there in the end!
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
MH: I stick pretty close to the historical facts where they are known. One of the advantages of writing about the so-called Dark Ages (now usually referred to as the Early Medieval period) is that there are very few written accounts, so the history is only known in the broadest of brush strokes. This gives great scope to create interesting stories without knowingly messing with the facts. I pick out a couple of known incidents as the skeleton of each novel and then add the fictional details as the flesh on the bones.
If I do deviate from the historical record, I let the reader know in the Historical Note at the end of the book.
What research did you do for this book?
MH: I read a lot. Over a period of several years, I would go into second-hand bookshops and buy any book I could find on the Anglo-Saxon age in Britain. I also contacted reenactment and living history groups, asking them questions when I would get stuck on a particularly niggly piece of detail. There are some groups out there, such as Wulfheodenas and Regia Anglorum, who really know their stuff, and they are eager to help make sure the history is correct. I’m sure this is true for any historical period.
When I was close to the end of the writing of The Serpent Sword, I also managed to visit some of the sites that appear in the novel. I’d been to some of them like Bamburgh Castle before, but managed to get to Yeavering (Gefrin) for the first time. I didn’t have long to visit these places, but a few hours on the actual ground that my characters would have walked on was invaluable. So many little things from that short trip made it into the final novel or its sequels. I hope to go back for a few days in the future while writing more of the Bernicia Chronicles.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel? Which is more difficult to write?
MH: The main characters are really all fictional, though they interact closely with real historical figures, such as kings, bishops and the like. It is easier to write the purely fictional characters, because nobody can tell you you’ve got it wrong!
Which do you prefer to write and why?
MH: I prefer to write the fictional characters, I think, though I’ve never really thought about it before! I like the clean slate and the ability to just make stuff up. Though I actually do that quite a lot with the historical figures too!
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
MH: I try to imagine how the people would think and how their
environment would affect them. What gods did they believe in? What did they wear? What chores did they need to perform each day to survive? What did they eat and drink? All of these things help to put yourself in the characters shoes. I go camping with my family every year, and staying in a tent, using only fire to keep warm, makes you realise how the natural world and the weather impacts everything you do. 1,400 years ago men and women relied on good weather to help their crops grow, bad weather would rot barley in the fields, a long winter could lead to starvation as food ran out. So, when writing the Bernicia Chronicles, I add lots of details about the weather – some have said too much! I look at the natural world in which the characters dwell as another personality.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
MH: There are more male characters in key roles in The Serpent Sword, it’s true. But the fact of the matter is that seventh century Britain was a very male-dominated society. They do all the fighting, and there is quite a bit of that in the book.
Having said that, in Anglo-Saxon society women had more rights and privileges than we tend to expect from the medieval period of history. When they married they were given a gift, a morning gift, that was theirs alone and could not be touched by their husband. This was to provide them with some security should something happen to their spouse. Women could also own land and take positions of power.
So, to answer your question, there are strong women characters in the Bernicia Chronicles and I enjoy writing from their perspective. I live with my wife and two daughters and I’m still trying to understand how women think – so it is challenging and interesting to write women!
Thanks for taking the time to join me today, Matthew, and good luck with your new series.
Thanks for the interesting questions. It’s been fun answering them and they made me think.