Previous editions of the Journal pages

Now that the sun is shining and the daffodils are sprouting up in the garden - unlike last year, this lot have bloomed, and are not sitting there as a mass of naked green leaves - it is harder to resist the temptation to be outside rather than concentrate on writing. The secret of successful writing is managing to apply your backside to the chair and then keeping it there.

I'm working on a project which may be suitable for the Young Adult/Crossover market, a pirate story entitled Sea Witch. It is not yet anywhere near a publishing stage, but it's great fun writing and re-writing it. Along the way, I am becoming quite an authority on the history of pirates and of nautical terms; my current reading for pleasure being Patrick O'Brian's wonderful Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin "Master & Commander" sea stories.

The novel the reader sees as the finished article, whether one of mine or another author's, is rarely as it looked at first draft stage. Apart from Pendragon's Banner, none of my novels' first chapters were the ones I originally wrote.

The Kingmaking at one time began with what is now Chapter Two, and A Hollow Crown's opening chapter ended up on page 675, as the first chapter of Part Four. Editing is often as time consuming as the actual writing. It is so very hard, sometimes, to consign whole pages to the Recycle Bin. However, writing is "the art of creating the real from the imaginary" and, sometimes, the imagination tends to run away with itself.

Typographical errors are the main annoyance, especially when, after all the hard work, the error is the publisher's mistake. The first edition of Pendragon's Banner had Arthur fighting a pagan Saxon Anglican thegn, as opposed to an Anglian, and I have never been able to put out of my mind the vision of Arthur with a "bread-stubbled" chin. It was supposed to read "beard-stubbled!"

(Quote of the month began in May 2005)

The website is looking wonderful with its new additions; my thanks to my talented webmaster Mal, for his hard work and enthusiasm. I think he has enjoyed updating it, as much as I have looked forward to discovering what has been changed!

I did throw my teddies out the cot when he briefly took away the blue ribbon on the home page. If ever we get to the dizzy heights of Sea Witch being published, that blue ribbon will be highly significant. Intrigued? Read the excerpt. There will also be more to that ribbon than you first realise, but to find out what that is, I'm sorry, you'll have to wait for the book!

Sea Witch met a bit of a squall during April, as I had to re-write most of it. Voyage One ended up too long and detailed, but the ship has now been "careened" (cleaned) of clinging barnacles and weed, so Voyage Two is now ready to make sail, again, to my agent for her opinion. No doubt there will be a Voyage Three, perhaps even a Voyage Four. Writing is 50% first draught, then 50% writing and re-writing.

An exciting month ahead as our pony, Cygnus Tudor Rose, stable name "Rosie", is off to stud. We have chosen a very handsome chestnut stallion called Shingle Hall Senator for her. If the foal she hopefully produces next year is a mixture of the both of them we will be more than pleased. Rosie is a 13 hand dun Welsh pony, sixteen years old but acts like she's two. We keep hoping that one day she will grow up and act her age. She has had two foals before, Cygnus Tudor Lily, now living with a lovely family in Essex, and Cygnus Welsh Poppy, who is back in Wales in the good care of young Katie Williams.

I have been around horses all my life, which is why I am so detailed with the horse scenes in my novels. My favourite creation is Arthur's horse, Hasta, in Pendragon's Banner, but I also have a soft spot for his mount Onager. An 'onager' was a Roman catapult which had a kick like a mule, which will give you some idea of the character of that particular horse. I have known many animals similar to Onager, mean so-and-so's who would kick first, ask questions later, but who would break their heart to do their best under saddle - as my Onager did for Arthur.

We also have a new horse; a 16.2 bay mare called Mary. When trying her out she leapt over a fence that was at least 1.9m high. I'm not totally sure that my nerves will survive watching Kathy take fences like that. Observing her jump a 90cm course is about my limit for clinging to nerves and sanity! To see a rainbow, you must put up with the rain
We have been busy as a family helping Kathy prepare the horses, Catkin Jack, Marbella Mary Rocket and China Beas Plum, who is owned by Sally Thomas and ridden by Kathy, for the summer season of showjumping.

July will see Kathy competing in the Royal International Horse Show at Hickstead in Sussex, and the horses need to get used to jumping in a grass arena instead of the winter indoor sites. I don't mind when the days are sunny, but standing around in the rain... ah well, you have to take the good with the bad, don't you?

Our local centre at Norton Heath in Essex has an excellent canteen, however, where Fran and her staff see us well fed. Catkin Jack has been doing especially well, coming 3rd a few weeks ago, then 2nd - then improving enough to gain an easy win. Funny how I pay the entry fees but Kathy pockets the prize money! She has taken much care and patience to produce Jack; he is only a young horse and the hard work is at last paying dividends.

As for my work, Sea Witch is with my agent, moored to her desk and waiting to weigh anchor. Even a published author gets jittery with a new project - well I do anyway! I am considering starting a sequel, "Bring-it-close" (an old term for a telescope) which will see my charismatic pirate, Jesamiah Acorne, yet again meeting trouble head on - probably in the guise of the notorious Blackbeard.

I have also had the huge compliment of being contacted by Robin Jacob of Tiger Films who is interested in producing a movie of 1066. Whether anything more happens depends on gaining the finances of course. Many planned films never get beyond the starting gate, but if this gets under way I'll be hired as Story Consultant.

If not, well, never mind, it has been an exciting few weeks. I have learnt a lot about the film world and spent a superb but wet day with Robin and his wife Monette investigating Bosham where Harold's manor was located.

Stop Press: My congratulations to Robin for winning the Best Documentary award at the US T.V. Awards for his "Battle of Manila". It's very nice to be famous, but you do not have to be famous to be nice.
I wonder if writing can be classified as one of the most frustrating of occupations? First you get writer's block and can't think what to write - you manage a single word, "The" at the top of the page in the morning and then, after hours of agonising, by late afternoon, decide to delete it. Somehow, you eventually write an entire novel. You correct it two or three times, and by the tenth read-through you are still finding errors...

You send it to your agent, who says it's too long. You cut it, doing a severe and disciplined edit, unable to believe that you actually wrote all that incomprehensible waffle, re-submit it, and your agent gets back to you: "Loved it, darling - but I'd like more description.  Can you extend it a little do you think?"  Sigh.

In other words, I am now on the re-write of the re-write of Sea Witch However, I think, and I hope, this will be the final version. Now all we have to do is find a publisher. Thank you so much to Sue and Katie, and Alison for reading it through, to Jansy for her shared laughter and comments and to Karen, a very new friend from Florida, who is so kindly helping me with some research details. It's a pity I can't get there to look for myself - but not possessing Jesamiah's ship, it looks like I'll have to remain here in London.

There was one hiccup when trying to decide whether "Acorne" was the right name for my pirate - but the ladies and gentlemen of a certain Pirate's message board, (you know who you are) carried the vote to keep Jesamiah's chosen alias as it is.

Yes, writing is frustrating - but it can also be great fun and I have made so many new friends because of my novels and my created characters. That in itself is reward enough.

Update on "1066". The slow process of getting all the necessary funding and pre-production plans together for the proposed film "1066 " is still progressing; fingers remain tightly crossed.

For anyone interested in on-line trivia quizzes, FunTrivia will take you to a quiz based on my Pendragon's Banner trilogy. Ho hum, I got two questions wrong… Well, I did write it quite a while ago now! Sailors were not tame men, not book-keepers, nor dancing masters
Great news! Harold the King has been reprinted, and is available from most good bookshops, or via the convenient click-through button at the bottom of this page. A big "Thank you" to all who emailed sales@randomhouse.co.uk on this matter. Now all we have to do is persuade them that it really is ridiculous not having Pendragon's Banner or Shadow of the King in print as well; not all of us want to buy second-hand books from eBay.

My thanks to the many who contacted my publishers to ask that this book be kept available. All I need now is for people to go out and buy it, to prove to Random House that, contrary to their belief, epic tome historical novels are very much in demand.

Edit: The UK Amazon delivers to the USA and other countries, although I am not certain what mailing rates apply.

A reader wrote to me a while back asking why I mentioned the weather so much in my novels. One reason is because rain, sun or snow can give such a vivid background detail to an otherwise ordinary "linking" scene, but additionally, a benign summer or a harsh winter could be a matter of life or death for our ancestors.

The weather was important. The Battle of Hastings would have gone entirely different that 14th October 1066, had it rained. The ground on the slope at Senlac Hill would have been churned and slippery, William's cavalry would have been exhausted; I doubt they would have managed that third, fateful charge.

Or, from William's point of view, if only the wind had been more helpful earlier in the summer, he would have been in England before August. Maybe we ought to appreciate the weather more as it wanders by, and not grumble so much about it's occasionally irritating moods?

On a personal note, I have spent most evenings picking small, sticky round seed-balls out of Rum's coat. He's a funny little dog. A Field Spaniel, he loves chasing rabbits through the corn but never has a hope of catching them. You see his head bobbing up over the height of the wheat or the barley to check that we are still walking along the footpath then he comes running back, his stern wagging as if it's been wound up by an over-active clockwork mechanism. Then he's off again, either to plop down a bunny hole or plunge head-first into a ditch.

Rum is a rescue dog, we obtained him from a local animal shelter. A previous owner thought it was fun to kick him and treat him badly. Despite being four years old he had never been out for a walk, his pads were as soft as a new pup's.

From his picture you'll see that all his troubles are behind him. It is so wonderful to see him grinning up at you, even though he stinks of stagnant ditch water and is usually covered in grass seed. To survive life, we must learn to run with tigers. Unfortunately, most of us can only manage jogging with kittens.
While I have a soft spot for my Arthurian trilogy, The Kingmaking was, after all, my first adult novel, in my view Harold The King is probably the best. My writing style had improved, and my confidence had increased. It was also easier to research.

We have documentation for the 11th Century, many written accounts of 1066, of Harold himself and the events that surrounded his life. In addition, the town of Waltham Abbey is a fifteen minute drive from where I live on the outskirts of London. It was wonderfully inspiring to actually walk where Harold may have stood. He founded the Abbey, and would have been present at various stages of its building.

There are also many places near Waltham Abbey named for Harold, from the years when he was Earl of Essex; Harold Wood, Harold Hill, Harold's Park Farm. It is not known whether he lived at this last location or whether he merely owned the property, but I am convinced that it was one of his manor houses. I have placed it in my novel as the home of Edyth Swanneck, who became his common law wife of over twenty years, the mother of his children.

The present day Harold's Park Farm perches on a ridge, the buildings clustered at the top of a steep hill. I am a frequent visitor to the place as it is now an equestrian centre and Kathy goes there to compete. I can confirm that from a defensive point of view, building your house on top of a hill is ideal. The views of the Lea and Roding Valleys are incredible - but the practicalities are dreadful. The persistent wind, from personal experience, can be vicious and biting!

The River Lea has always been an important communication link for it is a tributary of the River Thames. There have been settlements along its banks since the Stone Age. An Iron Age fort was situated on the first noticeable high ground here in Walthamstow where I live, and a Roman Road trudged along the ridge above the valley from London to Colchester.

In A Hollow Crown, I touch on the extensive raiding by Sven Forkbeard and his son Cnut (Canute) along the Essex coast. The Vikings, which means víking - to go raiding, were expert seamen. They could navigate their flat-keeled longboats inland along shallow rivers, including the Lea, for the Vikings raided Waltham Abbey. The children's nursery rhyme "London Bridge is falling down" probably comes from another raid when the Norse, attacking London, hacked through the supporting wooden pillars and caused the bridge to collapse.

The hoped-for film "1066" is still a viable possibility. Various people in the movie business are showing an interest, but we are still at the fingers crossed stage. Hopefully I may have more news in October. Life is a series of adventures, wrapped around the boring bits.
October 21st 1805. Trafalgar, somewhere off the coast of Spain, and, two hundred years later in Portsmouth, England, a famous ship - HMS Victory.  One particularly rewarding aspect of writing historical fiction is that I have an ideal excuse to visit so many interesting places.

I have stood on top of Glastonbury Tor, listening to the wind as it whispered through the grass; have been buzzed by low flying Tornado aircraft on Hadrian's Wall.  They really were low, I could read the numbers on them. With my eyesight that's remarkable - normally I can't even see the 'plane.

I have driven a 300 mile round trip to look at a river crossing, and enjoyed a holiday in Normandy while researching Harold the King. Sitting in glorious sunshine on the beach at Dives sur Mer, imagining Duke William's fleet, if that is counted as work!

For researching Sea Witch I wanted to explore a sailing ship. The Cutty Sark in London is wonderful but she was a merchant tea clipper with not a cannon in sight, not quite the thing for a pirate vessel so it had to be the Victory.

I took a friend's two young sons with me, Ben aged 5 and Nick aged 8. Ben was rather overwhelmed and perhaps too young, although he loved spending his money in the shop afterwards. Nick was agog; we remarked on how little space there is between decks and how dark it was down on the Orlop Deck where Nelson actually died.

Both were overawed at the vast area of those sails. She could spread 37 sails, covering an area of 6,510 square yards or 5,468 square metres and reach a speed of 11 knots, which is over 12 mph. Nelson's Great Cabin was light and spacious, with elegant furniture and a black-and-white chequered "carpet" made of painted canvas. The silverware, the comfort, all a contrast to the cramped conditions of the ordinary seamen.

The cannons were fascinating. I explained to Nick how the gun crews worked, firing and reloading the guns in 90 seconds. 102 guns firing solid round shot which would carve up rails and deck, creating splinters several inches long and causing great damage to a man's body. Chain shot, grape shot and langrage, designed to tear holes in canvas sails and bring down rigging and masts. The idea was not to sink a ship, the hull was made of oak more than 2 feet thick, but to cripple the enemy and claim the ship as Prize.

The smoke, the noise, the blood. Had Nick been aboard in 1805 he would have been a "powder monkey", one of the many young boys responsible for fetching up the gunpowder used to fire the cannons, from down below. Not a wise idea to store barrels of the stuff up on deck. It was kept safe, well below the water line, behind curtains of wet canvas to protect it from sparks.

Ben wanted to see the "steering wheel", so we found the helm which was about three times as big as himself.

All of it was fascinating; 821 men amid the blasting destruction of cannon fire; "England expects every man to do his duty?" Frankly, blow that for game of skittles! "No thank you."

When he got home Nick was full of it. He told his mum everything and said one of the nicest compliments I have ever been given. "You know what Mum? Every time I asked Helen a question she immediately knew the answer."

So please, between ourselves, don't anyone tell him I made some of it up. What I know, I know well. What I don't know, I find out.
The last month has been, to paraphrase the Queen, a mensis horribilis.

It began indifferently, started sliding downhill in the second week and deteriorated rapidly by the third.

Sadly we lost one of the horses. Colic must never be taken lightly and fortunately Kathy knows her horses well enough to instantly recognise when something is wrong. We called the vet at noon, had to have Mary put down by 4.30 p.m. The problem was a twisted gut. Horses have an enormous length of intestine which can become looped for no reason at all, and once it has knotted there is often nothing to be done except ensure the animal suffers no more pain.

It is a traumatic experience, believe me, sitting on a stable floor with a dying horse. They are such large creatures but so gentle and trusting. After the vet dosed her with morphine she felt no more pain, and we ensured her end was quick and clean. The last service of love we can offer to our animal friends.

I have also discovered that multiple bruises can turn into highly interesting and varied colours, for the following week my car was hit by a speeding motorist. Designer holes might be fashionable in jeans but not in the rear passenger side of my car! The vehicle is a write-off. Well, with a broken back axle it would be. Needless to say the other driver did not stop and to date has not been traced, although as a result of the impact he conveniently left his number plate behind.

Fortunately I was not seriously hurt, but irresponsible drivers who probably have no insurance and very possibly shouldn't be driving are not on my list of people to be nice to.

There is some good news to balance the bad however. Rosie, our Welsh pony, is in foal. The stallion is a local lad. In looks he is the "Johnny Depp" of the horse world and Rosie obviously adored him for she has been the world's grumpiest mare ever since coming home.

I suppose mums-to-be are entitled to their quirks but I do hope the growing foal will not be influenced by her tetchiness. One equine delinquent who kicks holes in her stable and is a master at barging through fencing when she prefers the neighbour's pasture is quite sufficient, thank you! Flying with eagles can be exciting, but sparrows are more loveable.
There was one sad point in November; a fox caught Marigold, one of our Chilton ducks. I suppose he just wanted an early Christmas dinner. Ducks are such silly creatures, she sat there quacking but made no attempt to flee. The annoying thing, this was 4:30 in the afternoon, admittedly already dark but virtually outside the tack room where Kathy was standing cleaning bridles. Poor Marigold has been replaced by two fluffy yellow ducklings called Briony and Rachel. I'm curious to know when their peep-peeping will turn into grown-up quack-quacking. At the moment they thoroughly enjoy snuggling beneath Kathy's coat - already they assume she is Mum. I am also waiting for Kathy to start quacking back at them!

It is the end of the year, mostly a good one, but very frustrating. I have parted from my agent of twelve years as we couldn't agree on the pitch of my new pirate novel, Sea Witch. The writing was fine, but the content was not suitable for younger readers. My main character however, Captain Jesamiah Acorne, refused to be dumbed down or made to give up his rum or his wenches. My agent and I therefore parted company. I cannot write what I do not want to write, neither can I write anything I don't feel comfortable with. Can any author? Jesamiah Acorne is a charming rogue of a hero with a life of his own. Watch this space for a publication date.

I cannot believe Christmas is here - and yet again I have forgotten where I put last year's unused cards. If I ever move house I expect to come across boxes of the things emerging from all sorts of "safe" places.

Writing is hard work. It is frustrating and demanding and often I come to feel it is a complete waste of time. Who is going to read my scribbling for goodness sake? And then I receive an e-mail from a new fan thanking me for creating Arthur or Harold - or looking forward to meeting Jesamiah. To me these characters are real. They are not imagined, they exist. The highest compliment? To be told "I cried at the end."

Thanks to all of you who read this newsletter and browse my website. The most wonderful thing about writing? I have made so many new and good friends.

Enjoy a happy, peaceful and relaxing December, and if your dreams do not come true in the New Year - go out and make them happen. A home without books is like a body without a soul