Book review: Tips for Writing, Publishing and Marketing your Novel by Matthew Harffy and Steven McKay

Tips for Writing, Publishing & Marketing Your Novel by Matthew Harffy and Steven McKay

Ten years ago, I was at the London Book Fair for the launch of the first of my novels about 7th-century Northumbria, Edwin: High King of Britain. I was particularly pleased with the book because it was a fascinating period of British history and no one else had written about it. I had the market all to myself.

Only, I didn’t. At pretty well exactly the same time, Matthew Harffy published The Serpent Sword, the first in his Bernicia Chronicles, telling the story of kings Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu through the eyes and actions of a sometime member of their warbands, Beobrand.

I was, I must admit, pretty gutted. But then I realised that Matthew was going the independent route with The Serpent Sword while I had a proper publisher. I settled back to count my royalties while I let Matthew eat the dust of my sales. With that backing, surely my books would win the battle for Northumbria.

Only, they didn’t. Matthew’s Bernicia novels have sold by the bookshelf, shifting over half a million (!) copies in total. Mine have sold respectable amounts but nothing like as many as his.

So when Matthew put out this book (with Steven McKay, who’s also sold many more books than me) I bought it because, frankly, I wanted to know how he did it.

And that’s exactly what they tell you. With no froth, no spin, no filler: it’s a book to read in an afternoon but with the distilled experience of a combined twenty years in the trenches of writing, publishing, marketing and selling books. As such, it’s invaluable, and I will be putting their ideas into practice. Maybe, just maybe, I might begin to then start catching up!

Book review: The Smell of War by Roland Bartetzko

The Smell of War by Roland Bartetzko

There aren’t many boys today who grow up with the ambition to fight in a war – but that’s what Roland Bartetzko always wanted to do. Growing up in the old West Germany, there was the chance that he would have to do exactly that, should the Soviet tanks roll West. So Bartetzko enrolled in the German army, training as a paratrooper. But then, in a miracle that was so unexpected we have pretty well ignored it ever since, the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended without a shot being fired.

Great for the rest of us, bad for a young German who desperately wanted to test his mettle in a proper war. But in the aftermath of the dissolution of the old Eastern bloc, the old tensions that had been suppressed under communism rose to the surface again, first in what had previously been Yugoslavia. War broke out there, the first war in Europe since the end of World War II. Now Bartetzko had his chance.

Signing up as a volunteer for the Croatian Defence Council, Bartetzko got to taste war at first hand. And not just taste it: he dived in head first. Because this is the strange truth that it’s important we recognise: for most people, war is hell. But there is a small sub group of men for whom war is not life: never do they feel more alive, more energised, more vital than when their lives are on the line. Bob Crisp, South African cricketer, WWII tanker and, according to Wisden, ‘one of the most extraordinary men to ever play cricket’ was one. Crisp later told his son that he “loved the war. He enjoyed it. He thought it was fantastic“.

Another was Adrian Carton de Wiart whose Wikipedia biography famously begins: He served in the Boer War, First World War, and Second World War. He was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; was blinded in his left eye; survived two plane crashes; tunnelled out of a prisoner-of-war camp; and tore off his own fingers when a doctor declined to amputate them. Describing his experiences in the First World War, he wrote, “Frankly, I had enjoyed the war.”

Now we can add Roland Bartetzko to that list. For with the Croatian war over, Bartetzko did not go home to Germany but instead volunteered for the even more shoestring Kosovo Liberation Army, fighting a guerilla war against the Serbs, seemingly against impossible odds, until NATO came to the rescue of the Kosovans.

But this is not a book about why Bartetzko wanted to test himself in battle – he barely touches on that. Instead, it’s actually a manual of what to do and what not to do if you should find yourself fighting as a guerilla against a vastly more powerful enemy. It includes how to set up an ambush, what to do when pinned down by a machine gun, the importance of foot care and many other aspects of practical war craft from a man who knows it better than most people. It’s laconic, clear and honest.

Bartetzko is still the war dog. Too old, he says, to fight against the Russians in Ukraine, he is still near the front lines, bringing supplies and equipment to the soldiers there. It’s a remarkable book from a fascinating man – but a man who appears oblivious or unwilling to ask questions as to his own fascination with war.

Why Did They Come?

The North Sea is a dangerous body of water. What made many thousands of people embark on small boats and set out on the whale road so that they might arrive at a cold wet island in the sea?

There’s no single answer. Some may indeed have come as conquerors. In the fifth and sixth centuries Britain had split into a myriad petty kingdoms, many of which were so small and fleeting as to leave no trace of their existence. In such a context, a determined warlord with a retinue of fifty warriors could ta control of a kingdom and proclaimed himself its king. But amid the political chaos and worsening climate of the time, other people may well have arrived as refugees, pitching up together in a boat hoping to find better land to farm and a new beginning. Some may have been a combination of both: people going into exile after a defeat and finding the opportunities in the new country better than their prospects should they return.

No one story tells the tale and future work should reveal more of the nuances of what happened during those obscure centuries when Britain went from Britannia, where people spoke British Celtic and British Latin, to a land split into many kingdoms where people in the south, east and midlands spoke Old English and the people in the west spoke what was becoming Welsh and Cumbric, and Cornish.

Anglo-Saxon identities

While from the outside the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons seems like a slow-motion invasion, it would have often seemed different to the people living then.

In particular, local identities and loyalties were more important than ethnic identities, if such even existed then. Identity was familial and local, attached to a tribal grouping and lord, and to religion. The boundaries of these identities were not fixed although they would probably have been clear to the people of the time.

A good example is provided by the genealogy of the House of Wessex, Alfred the Great’s own house and the one that would go on to rule over the first unified English state. The founder of the dynasty was one Cerdic, which is undoubtedly a Britonnic name, as was true of his seven successors. This suggests that a Romano-British dynasty developed strong links, most probably through marriage, with some of the incoming Germanic tribes and set themselves up as rulers in the same way that the newcomers were doing. Having adopted the ruling style of the newcomers, the Cerdicings assimilated to their culture too but from the top down, becoming rulers to the Anglo-Saxons rather than their subjects.

The Even Newer Paradigm of the Arrival of the Anglo-Saxons

aDNA analysis has confirmed traditional view that there was really a period of mass movements. Large numbers of Anglo-Saxons did sail across the North Sea to Britain. But within that overall scheme, it’s clear that there is room for a great deal of nuance. There is also clear evidence for intermarriage between continental incomers and native Britons, as well as there being a significant number of arrivals from France too.

What we seem to have is a patchwork picture. Yes, there were large groups of settlers who arrived and who appear to have largely displaced the native population, particularly in eastern regions such as Kent and East Anglia. As we move west, the degree of admixture increases, with some families showing clear signs of marrying among both groups over a number of generations. And in the west there is relatively little presence of these continental ancestors. This does tally quite well with the accounts of Gildas and Bede. Factor in that this all took place over a couple of centuries and we have a sort of slow moving Anglo-Saxon creep north and west from their original strongholds in the south and east. It’s a mixture of conquest, intermarriage, alliances, slave taking and the slow consolidation of tiny kingdoms into larger polities.

aDNA and the Anglo-Saxons

DNA analysis techniques have advanced rapidly and, in particular, the techniques for finding and analysing aDNA have improved dramatically. Researchers discovered that DNA survived better, and with much less contamination, in the petrous bone in the ear. The petrous bone is one of the hardest and densest bones in the body, leading to it surviving better than other parts of the body and providing excellent aDNA samples.

That meant it would be possible to analyse the DNA of burials dating from the early Anglo-Saxon period to see where these people really came from. If the analysis worked, we would finally know which idea was correct, the old one of mass migration or the new one of elite takeover.

The most recent large-scale study, which involved the analysis of the aDNA from 350 burials across eastern and southern Britain carbon dated to between the 5th and 7th centuries found that 74 per cent of the genetic history of these people comes from continental north-western Europe. There was a marked east-west difference, with the main concentration of people having continental ancestry in the south and along the east coast, and the proportion having a native British ancestry increasing further west and north. There was also no sex difference, indicating that this ancestry derived from whole family groups arriving in Britain rather than Germanic warriors taking native Britonnic women as wives.

So the traditional view that there was really a period of mass movements of populations has been vindicated. It wasn’t a elite takeover. The Anglo-Saxons really did migrate in large numbers to Britain, displacing the native population.

DNA and the Anglo-Saxons

The widely accepted new paradigm of the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons abandoned the old idea of mass arrivals in favour of an elite takeover. Small groups of warriors sailed over from Europe, killed the native kings and took over their kingdoms while the native population gradually adopted the language and customs of their new rulers.

Then something new came on the scene that had the potential to completely confirm the new paradigm: DNA and isotopic analysis. Among other things, isotopic analysis of teeth allows us to find out where somebody was born and brought up. As teeth are the parts of the body that survive burial best, they offer a valuable insight into the origins of the person excavated. DNA analysis can show the descent of the individual concerned.

The first tranche of DNA studies provided somewhat contradictory findings. These studies attempted to extrapolate backwards from the contemporary population of England to work out where people came from, rather like the popular DNA testing kits that purport to tell people their ancestry. However, it proved very difficult to reliably work backwards as far as necessary to find the origins of the Anglo-Saxons. A much better way for testing this would be to take DNA from people buried between the 5th and 7th centuries and test what their ancestry was. But extracting usable, and uncontaminated aDNA (which simply stands for ancient DNA) was initially very difficult if not impossible.

The New Paradigm

The archaeologists and historians who came to the conclusion that the Anglo-Saxon invasion was not so much an invasion but rather a take over, an early equivalent of a hostile bid for a company, were influenced by a general presumption towards gradualism, which disposed them against the idea of a mass invasion by hordes of Anglo-Saxon invaders. Coupled with that was a reluctance to play into right-wing narratives about immigration. An elite replacement that left the vast majority of the people in Britain unaffected resonated better with modern prejudices than the idea of invaders displacing the natives and taking over.

So by the turn of the millennium, at least among academics, the old idea of mass folk movements and violent invasions had been pretty well entirely discarded. The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons was a cultural transformation resulting from small groups of warriors taking over the petty kingdoms of Britonnic kings and the native populations gradually adopting the language and customs of their rulers. The archaeological evidence trumped the patchy historical accounts.

A New Origin Story for England

Archaeologists examining the fifth and sixth centuries in Britain had failed to find evidence of the native Britons being driven out. The main evidence for the spread of the Anglo-Saxons had come from burials. But this new generation of archaeologists pointed out that we had been applying different preconceived ideas to the spread of peoples and culture.

In Britain, one of the ways of measuring the spread of the Anglo-Saxons across the country was from different burial practices. The Britons, being largely Christian, generally buried their dead in plain graves, with perhaps one or two personal items, but precious little else. However, the pagan Anglo-Saxons preferred to equip their dead for the afterlife, burying their dead with a full panoply of weapons, for men, and utensils, for women. The spread of these sort of burials across the country appeared to tell the story of the gradual advance of the Anglo-Saxons westward. It all seemed to make perfect sense.

But then archaeologists pointed to the change in burial practices through Germany and Scandinavia from the 8th and 12th centuries. There too, burials gradually changed from corpses fully furnished for the afterlife to spartan interments. There too there was a gradual spread, radiating east and north in this case. But in this case, no one was interpreting the change in burial customs as the result of invading Christians supplanting the native pagans. Rather, the change in burials was read as the result of the conversion of pagan Germans and Norse to Christianity.

 Perhaps the change in burial practices in Britain could also be explained by a religious and cultural change rather than one lot of people being driven out and replaced by others.

We were interpreting the past in the light of what we expected to find there. A story of elite takeover and cultural change appeared to explain the archaeological facts in the ground better than the previous story of conquest, mass migration and ethnic expulsion.

This new paradigm swiftly became the dominant theory for Anglo-Saxon origins. It emphasised acculturation, cooperation outside the conflicts of the warrior elite, and general continuity through the otherwise obscure fifth and sixth centuries.

An Elite Takeover

From the middle of the 20th century, archaeologists started looking for the traces left by the Anglo-Saxon invasion. But the problem was, they couldn’t find any. Landscape archaeologists, examining how fields and pastures developed in the fifth and sixth centuries, could find no evidence that significant areas had been abandoned for extended periods of time, as one would expect if a native population was driven out by war.

With archaeologists failing to find evidence for the violent ethnic cleansing of the native Britons, a new consensus began to develop. The new consensus could take support from a far better recorded invasion of England: that of the Normans in 1066. In that case, a relatively small invading army effectively removed the entire upper echelon of Anglo-Saxon society, producing massive changes in land ownership and language, all based on roughly 10,000 immigrants.

From this example, and other examples around the world, it seemed clear that warrior bands sailing over the North Sea could produce a social revolution despite relatively small numbers. Linguists suggested that the language replacement was a result of the higher status of Old English, where language was an obvious marker of status. Under this theory, it would take relatively few generations for the old language to die out and Old English to become the accepted language of the land.