Blog tour: what, how, why and how…

1. What are you working on?

Quite a lot! First, and I’m about half way through this and typing frantically with one eye on the approaching 16 May deadline, is a biography of Alfred the Great with Dr Katie Tucker, the osteoarchaeologist (she works with bones) who is leading the search for the mortal, but lost, remains of the king. There was a recent BBC 2 TV programme, The Search For Alfred The Great, hosted by the lustrous Neil Oliver, on the efforts to find King Alfred’s body, which can be seen in part here. This biography tells his life, and extraordinary achievements, and Dr Tucker will be writing about her search for his lost remains. The book is called In Search of Alfred the Great: The King, The Grave, The Legend and will be published by Amberley Publishing.

Then there’s volume two of The Northumbrian Thrones, Oswald: Return of the King.

Oswald: Return of the KIng
Oswald: Return of the KIng

The sequel to Edwin: High King of Britain tells the story of Edwin’s nephew, Oswald, who with his family fled to the sea-spanning kingdom of Dal Riada when Edwin defeated and killed his father in battle when he was a child – in the Dark Ages, the personal really was political! JRR Tolkien, the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, took his inspiration for Aragorn, the dispossessed king who returns to claim his kingdom, from Oswald, and his story is crucial in the history of England. It was a time of great danger – no king of Northumbria before Oswald had managed to die a natural death – but also the sudden birth of great beauty, as if the precariousness of life made the preciousness of things made with consuming skill all the greater.

I’m aiming to have written Oswald: Return of the King by the end of October for publication next Easter. After that, I’ll be working on the final volume of The Northumbrian Thrones, Oswy: King of Kings, which is about Oswald’s half brother and successor as king of Northumbria (in a time before surnames, parents gave their children names with the same prefix to indicate they were siblings; thus Alfred the Great’s five elder brothers and his sister all had names beginning with Æthel. Presumably even his mum and dad were getting confused when they came to number seven and called him Ælfred instead). Volumes two and three of The Northumbrian Thrones will be published by Lion Fiction.

And to round things out, there’s The Light That Drowns The Stars: A Spiritual History of London. Now, I’m an unusual creature: someone living in London who was actually born here, and lived all my life in the city – to be precise, up and down a six-mile section of the Piccadilly Line. This is an exciting, making it up as I go along sort of book, where I’m writing a spiritual history of the town that is both the Great Wen, a pustule on the bottom of the country, and the inspiration of religious and spiritual movements ranging from Methodism to the Alpha Course. Also, London formed me, for ill and good, and that story, I realised, forms how I write its history and thus is part of its history too. It’s a thrilling, though, nerve wracking, book to write. It should be out later next year from Lion Hudson.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

A lot of Early Medieval historical fiction concentrates on the heroic aspects of the Heroic Age: shieldwalls and battles, with a side order of wenching and pillaging – sort of Rambo in the sixth century. I wanted to take this and build a bigger picture: the obscurity of the Dark Ages hides the birth of England, Scotland and Wales, the foundations and many of the lift shafts of everything that came afterwards. And, what is more, it was the battles that often settled the questions: would England expand and dominate the whole country? Answered, emphatically in the negative, in the Battle of Nechtansmere in 685. Would the Romano-Britons be able to drive the Anglo-Saxons from their land? Again, a question answered in blood at Mount Badon and Catterick and elsewhere, and the reason I am writing today in English, not Welsh.

So, with The Northumbrian Thrones, I wanted to widen the focus and look at the interplay of nation building and identity, and how they worked out in the crucial period when the pagan kings of the Anglo-Saxons decided where their religious, and cultural, future lay. The personal choices made by a few men and women then determined our national trajectory up until today.

This was all made considerably easier because I had already written a non-fiction book on the history and archaeology of Northumbria, with archaeologist and director of the Bamburgh Research Project, Paul Gething. Northumbria: the Lost Kingdom, and the many conversations I had with Paul, gave me almost everything I needed in terms of historical research and, in Paul, I had access to one of the finest, most incisive analysts of the Early Medieval period there is. We spent many hours discussing the finer points of shieldwall battle tactics and the etiquette of duelling, with Paul always able to bring to bear some archaeological nugget or fascinating ethnographic parallel.

Another difference is that I don’t simply write historical fiction. Edwin: High King of Britain is my first novel, but I’ve had five books published before it, four on history and one children’s book (the details are all on my books page). I’ve also had over thirty short stories published in various magazines, in genres ranging from science fiction and fantasy, through literary fiction to a stab at romance! There’s a page linking to my stories here.

3. Why do you write what you do?

Because someone paid me! First off, writing is a job. The strange thing is, for all the years I looked on writing as an art and vocation and all that sort of stuff, I got virtually nowhere, wrote very little, and had almost nothing published. Since I’ve switched to looking at it as a job, and started – against all my instincts – to push myself forward and market myself in all sorts of hideous ways, I’ve not had time to stop.

But it’s also fair to say I get very grumpy if I don’t write – my sons found the perfect image of what I’m like if I don’t write regularly: it’s not a pretty sight, is it.

Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex)
Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex)

4. How does your writing process work?

I get up at 5am, make a cup of tea, say my prayers, and start writing. Getting up at that time means I get two hours before the rest of the family are up, or at least 45 minutes if I have to leave to do some freelance editing at Time Out or Bella or one of the other places I do shifts at. I know many writers find reading about the actual writing process fascinating, but I avoid reading it and I’m not much cop at writing it. In the end, it comes down to putting one word after another. The main, perhaps only, thing I’ve learned is: trust the words. They’re tough little blighters, and will do all the heavy lifting for you, if you give them the chance.

Thank you to Justin Hill (author of Shieldwall and a very fine writer) for asking me to continue the tour. Read his answers here.

The blog tour has stopped recently at Matthew Harffy’s blog (author of the Bernicia Chronicles, which are also set in seventh-century Northumbria); AH Gray who, although condemned to the sunshine of Perth, Western Australia, finds her true home also by the cold grey waters of the North Sea – she is the author of the Northumbrian Saga.

The tour continues…

Christi Daugherty takes cool and brands it in her own inimitable  style. The author of the best-selling Night School series of YA novels, she combines writing about the sort of teenagers I wish I’d been with an unerring nose for a good cup of coffee.

CJ Daugherty
CJ Daugherty

A former crime reporter, political writer and investigative journalist, CJ Daugherty wrote for several American newspapers and for Reuters before becoming a full-time novelist. Her young adult series, Night School, set in a boarding school for the children of the political elite, has been translated into 21 languages.

Julian Bell will warm the heart of English teachers throughout the world – after years teaching the subject all over the world, he is about to step into the page with his first novel, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.

Julian Bell
Julian Bell

Julian Bell has worked as a teacher for twenty-seven years in London, Hong Kong, Spain, Kent and Hertfordshire. He is currently Head of English at the Godolphin and Latymer School in West London. He has written comedy scripts for BBC Radio 4 and a variety of stand-up comedians, and his poetry has been published in a number of magazines and has won several prizes. He has also been a restaurant and book reviewer, and has been commissioned by the Royal School of Church Music to write the lyrics of a Christmas carol. He writes a weekly column on London at

Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, his novel set in Dublin in 1920 at the height of the Anglo-Irish war, is the first volume of a planned trilogy: the second volume, My Enemy’s Enemy, will be set in London in 1940 – 41 during the Blitz, and the third, Ourselves Alone, in Belfast, London and the Lake District in 1975. He lives in London with his wife and daughter.

Lots of New Stuff

As it says, there really is lots of new stuff.

First off, and this is for your ears rather than your eyes, there’s a podcast of my story, From Here To The Northern Line, available to listen or download from Third Flatiron Publishing. It’s read by the brilliant and talented Harriet Whitbread, who has made me see the story in a whole new light by the life she brings to the characters. It’s available here.

If you’d like to read the story as well as listen to it, From Here To The Northern Line is in the Astronomical Odds anthology form Third Flatiron.

Then, in the Trust & Treachery anthology which features writers as well known as Beth Cato and James Daniel Ross, nestled in among the big names is Neighbour From Hell, a short story about a neighbour who is unusual in other ways apart from always wearing slippers.

Trust & Treachery
Trust & Treachery

These are both speculative fiction stories, but I sometimes strike out into literary fiction too, and the discerning Nancy Wagner at Page & Spine magazine has taken two of my stories for her showcase there: Disconnecting and Brothers.


So, it’s been a busy few weeks, and there should be a couple more short stories coming soon. Watch this space!

An Unexpected Sight

There I was at the London Book Fair on Tuesday, wandering along, taking in the bustle and the deal making, enjoying the atmosphere and slowly heading over towards the Lion Hudson stand, where I had a 10.30 meeting with my publisher, when I stopped (creating something a people jam behind me). There, ahead of me, were the swirling lines of an Anglo-Saxon design, and ‘Edwin: High King of Britain’ in letters considerably bigger than my head, and ‘Edoardo Albert’ (about the size of my head), on a series of display boards. Unknown to me, Lion Hudson was featuring Edwin as one of its major new titles for the year. So, here’s a picture of me standing in front of the display.

At the London Book Fair 2014
At the London Book Fair 2014

And here are a couple more photos, with Tony Collins, publisher of Lion Fiction, and Jessica Tinker, my editor at Lion.

With Tony Collins at London Book Fair 2014
With Tony Collins at London Book Fair 2014
With Jessica Tinker at London Book Fair 2014
With Jessica Tinker at London Book Fair 2014



At the London Book Fair 2014

From Here To The Northern Line in Astronomical Odds

I’m delighted to say that my story, ‘From Here to the Northern Line’, will appear in the Astronomical Odds anthology from Third Flatiron Publishing – and my estimable wife, Harriet Whitbread, will be recording the story so that it will be available as a podcast. Since Harriet is supremely gifted at bringing words to life, this really will be worth listening to! Here’s the cover of Astronomical Odds – the book is out on 15 March.

Astronomical Odds
Astronomical Odds

TV is evil – part 2

With thanks to Ronnie Haydon for pointing this out to me. The just as great Roald Dahl on the effects of TV.


The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set —
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone’s place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they’re hypnotised by it,
Until they’re absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.
Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don’t climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink —
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
‘All right!’ you’ll cry. ‘All right!’ you’ll say,
‘But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!’
We’ll answer this by asking you,
‘What used the darling ones to do?
‘How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?’
Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
We’ll say it very loud and slow:
THEY … USED … TO … READ! They’d READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching ’round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it’s Penelope.)
The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and-
Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
There’s Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole-
Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks-
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They’ll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.
And once they start — oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They’ll grow so keen
They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.

Justin Hill’s read my book!

This just gets better and better! After the wonderful message from Bernard Cornwell on Friday, my editor received an email from Justin Hill, author of Shieldwall (only the best novel about Anglo-Saxon England out there) this morning. He’s read Edwin: High King of Britain as well and he likes it too!

Justin Hill
Justin Hill

So, here’s what Justin (we’re on first name terms now, you see!) has to say about Edwin:

‘At the dawn of England seven kingdoms struggle for supremacy: but there is more than honour and power at stake; paganism, Christianity and the future shape of the English nation will be decided.  A fast-paced and gripping tale of the great Northumbrian King Edwin, reclaiming one of our great national figures from the shadows of history.’

I am, I must admit, feeling slightly overwhelmed at the moment, but in a good way! By the way, if you’ve never read Shieldwall, I can’t recommend it enough. Here’s my review of it.


Bernard Cornwell’s read my book!

Yes, that Bernard Cornwell, author of the Sharpe books (I’ve read 23 out of 24 of them, only excepting the one where Sharpe is cuckolded by his wife and falls out with William Frederickson, as I couldn’t bear to read it) and the Saxon War novels, and, now with Patrick O’Brian gone, probably the best and certainly the best-known writer of historical fiction in the world, that Bernard Cornwell – he’s read my book! My publisher, Lion Fiction, sent Bernard’s (we’re on first name terms now he’s endorsed my book!) agent a copy of Edwin: High King of Britain, but without any real hope of getting a reply – we had no ‘in’ with him, beyond the fact that he had once visited the Bamburgh Research Project. Then, to our astonishment, we received an email yesterday from the man himself. He’s read my book! He likes it!! He’s written a commendation for the cover!!! He’s given me even more reason to use exclamation marks!!!!!

So, when I say that I think the book is actually really rather good, I’ve now got Bernard Cornwell to back me up. Now, you want to know what he said, don’t you? Me, I kept re-reading it all yesterday. Well, here you go, this is what Bernard said, I’m sure it will have pride of place on the cover:

Edwin, High King of Britain, brings to life the heroic age of our distant past, a splendid novel that leaves the reader wanting more.


A Natural Cornucopia – part 2


First written for Time Out in late 2011…

As sure as the nights lengthening, leaves turning and temperatures falling, every Autumn brings in its train a bumper crop of nature books. In a spirit of literary natural history, let us investigate this little-known publishing ecosystem.

Symbiosis is as important to writers as it is to lichens. So we witness the phenomenon of Stephen Moss introducing David Lindo’s book, and David Lindo appearing in Stephen Moss’s TV programmes. This piebald pair produce work that usefully illuminates each other, with Lindo writing passionately about a life spent watching birds in cities and Moss, having retreated from London to Somerset five years ago, concentrating on the animal, plant and, particularly, bird life of the village of Mark on the Somerset Levels. While neither books are classics of their genres – The Urban Birder is autobiography and natural history combined, Wild Hares and Hummingbirds aspires to be a modern Natural History of Selborne – they each convey their writers’ jizz (lest you wonder, this perennially dirty sounding word is the bird watchers’ term for the combination of qualities that make a bird what it is). Lindo, being the son of Jamaican immigrants, is the more unusual, and his message – to view buildings like birds do, as cliffs and mountains, and always to look up – resonates with the city dweller. Since Lindo brings nature back to where it seems most absent – the city – it is appropriate that the book is almost as much about growing up in the 1970s as it is about birds, and the tale of two young birdwatchers being pursued by airgun-shooting Essex toughs from Rainham marshes is almost worth the purchase price alone.

Moss’s work is full of nuggets of information, as concentrated as an owl pellet, such as a goldcrest – Britain’s smallest bird – weighing the same as a 20p coin, and the deadly consequences to field voles of marking their territories in wee. For urine reflects ultra-violet light and kestrels, the hovering predators of motorway verges, can see in ultra violet. While there’s much like this to enjoy in the book, the writing isn’t quite of the same standard as Gilbert White and Robert McFarlane, whatever the publisher’s blurb may say.

Bees In The City and The Natural Navigator belong to a different genus of natural-history books: the guide. Both are practical, well produced and do pretty much what they say on the cover, although potential apiarists and explorers should beware before buying hives or crossing the Orinoco without further research: neither topic can be constrained within the covers of a book. To be fair, none of the authors make such a claim, and bees in particular need all the help they can get. Honey bee colonies have been dying off over the last five years, probably due to a combination of environmental stress and infestations of the all too appropriately named Varroa destructor mite, but in response there has been a huge increase in beekeeping, particularly in urban areas. Benjamin and McCallum begin their book by profiling some of these new, young and, I should think, Time Outy apiarists, before moving on to a manual of practical beekeeping. Gooley sets navigation in its pre-GPS, even pre-compass, contexts and so seeks to open the senses of anyone outdoors to the cues our ancestors, and the birds and beasts of today, use to get around.

If the first four books belong to different genera, Fire Season comes from a different family altogether: American wilderness writing. Starting with Thoreau’s Walden, through Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey, Americans were faced with an entirely different experience of land and nature than the miniaturists of England: the Big Country. While English writers studied the ordinary and showed it to be extraordinary, it doesn’t take much effort to convince the reader that spending five months of the year watching for fires from a lookout tower in a semi-desert wilderness of sage bush, ponderosa pines and mountains is worth reading about. Although not quite the classic it hopes to be – Connors is either too present or not present enough in his narrative for it to match its antecedents – Fire Season does succeed in making this alien landscape and even more alien way of life come alive.

Edward Stourton’s book belongs in a different phylum altogether: essays. To be honest, I didn’t want to like a book that reproduced the fortnightly Telegraph columns of a BBC magnate regaling us with tales of men and beasts met when walking his Springer spaniel, but Diary of a Dog-Walker is an unexpected delight, combining gossipy politics and shaggy dog stories adroitly. Who could resist the tale of the boy who tricked his mother into calling their puppy Achilles so that he might hear her calling, ‘Achilles, heel!’ across the park?

The 2011 harvest of nature books shows the genre of nature writing, if not the natural world that inspires it, to be in rude health, and the common method of these books – to look harder at the world around us however ordinary it may seem – is certainly worth following.

Bees In The City: The Urban Beekeepers’ Handbook by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum.

The Natural Navigator Pocket Guide by Tristan Gooley.

The Urban Birder by David Lindo.

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History Of An English Village by Stephen Moss.

Diary Of A Dog-Walker: Time Spent Following A Lead by Edward Stourton.

Fire Season: Field Notes From A Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors.