Welcome, Matthew! Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel. Tell us about The Serpent Sword.
It is set in BRITAIN 633 A.D.
The book blurb is as follows:
Certain that his brother’s death is murder, young farmhand Beobrand embarks on a quest for revenge in war-torn Northumbria. When he witnesses barbaric acts at the hands of warriors he considers his friends, Beobrand questions his chosen path and vows to bring the men to justice.
Relentless in pursuit of his enemies, Beobrand faces challenges that change him irrevocably. Just as a great sword is forged by beating together rods of iron, so his adversities transform him from a farm boy to a man who stands strong in the clamour and gore of the shieldwall.
As he closes in on his kin’s slayer and the bodies begin to pile up, can Beobrand mete out the vengeance he craves without sacrificing his own honour…or even his soul?
What drew you to writing historical fiction and why this particular era?
I’ve always loved stories of warriors. Swords and battles. Strong characters fighting against injustice. Back in my teens, I was mainly attracted to fantasy and SciFi. But in the last couple of decades I found the same type of stories in factual-based historical fiction of the kind written by Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden and David Gemmell.
Way back in 2001, I had an idea for a story set in 7th century Britain, after watching a programme on TV about an ancient burial ground being excavated at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. At the end of the programme, I started typing the first things that came into my head. Over the next weeks and months the story ideas kept rattling around in my head. I bought books on the time period and started mapping out a plot for a novel.
Did you uncover any surprising historical persons, places, events or things in your research?
When researching for the sequel of The Serpent Sword, I discovered that the village where I used to live in Northumberland, Norham, is purported to be the location where Saint Aidan crossed the River Tweed when heading to Lindisfarne. As Aidan arrives in the third novel in The Bernicia Chronicles, it seemed I had to include the crossing.
So much of the research we do as historical novelists has to be relegated to the far reaches of our brains so our books don’t come across as a history text to readers. But finding nuggets that can be incorporated into our stories is such a joy. Let’s back up just a bit – tell me, when did you first start writing?
I wrote short stories at school and always enjoyed creative writing. I even won a prize for a short story when we lived in Northumberland – I was about 11 and my older sister helped a lot with it, but don’t all writers need a good editor?!. I have always been interested in writing and dreamed for a long time of writing a novel, but like many others, I would start with what seemed a good idea, write a few pages, and then, soon after, forget about it.
Oh yes, that certainly sounds familiar! So how long did it take you to write The Serpent Sword? What is the most important thing you learned in that process?
As I’ve said, I started back in 2001, and didn’t complete it until the end of 2013. But I wasn’t writing for all of that time. A couple of years after starting, when I was just starting to believe I could actually write a novel, disaster struck. This particular disaster was dealt to me by one of my favourite authors, Bernard Cornwell. He brought out ‘The Last Kingdom’, the first book in a series that started in the same location and a similar time period to my novel (albeit a couple of centuries later). I was devastated. If I finished the story now, it would look like I had copied Cornwell, who was, and still is, a hugely successful author in the genre.
The wind was totally taken out of my sails, and I set aside the book and made a terrible mistake. I allowed my own despondency to tell me that it was not worth carrying on.
Years went by. My family was growing. I got promoted at work, and extra responsibility brought extra workload. I also found another outlet for my creativity, by forming a band and gigging in local pubs and clubs at weekends (more of that later).
So life was very busy, but all the time in the back of my mind, I kept going back to the ideas of the story of the young warrior in Dark Ages Britain on his quest to find his brother’s killer. Every time Cornwell released a new book in his successful Warlord series, I cursed my bad luck, read his novel with a mixture of disgust and awe at his skill as a storyteller. And each time, I asked myself whether I shouldn’t pick up the manuscript and carry on.
Then, in 2012, some ten years after I’d set the book aside, something clicked and I decided that enough was enough. I kept hearing tales of people independently publishing their books on Amazon Kindle and other eBook formats, and I thought that perhaps what I had seen as a weakness was actually a strength — there was a ready-made following of books of the genre, as proven by Cornwell’s success and that of many other authors.
So, the most important thing I’ve learnt in the process of writing The Serpent Sword is, “don’t give up”.
Based on the reviews I’ve read, I know your readers are thrilled you persevered. What’s the best part of the writing process for you? What has been the most challenging?
The best part of the process is finishing a novel! There are many times during the writing, that it seems it will never happen! I think the most challenging part of writing, is the editing and making sure it all hangs together properly.
Have you ever been inspired by a place? Have you visited the places you’ve written about?
I am inspired by places all the time. In fact, a major reason why I think I was able to complete The Serpent Sword and the sequels is that I lived in Northumberland as a child. The landscape – the rugged coastline, the mist-shrouded rivers and windswept hills – remained with me.
The Serpent Sword is Book 1 of The Bernicia Chronicles. When did you determine that you had a series in the works? Were you plotting the second book whilst writing the first? What can you tell us about Book #2 and Book #3?
When I started work on the book, I thought I would tell Beobrand’s life story in the single novel. I had mapped out a high-level synopsis for about 50 years of his life. Then I worked out that a debut novel should be somewhere around 100,000 words and, after hitting about 70,000 words, I was less than one year into the story! At that point, I realised I had a series in the works! I even changed the ending The Serpent Sword to make it a more satisfying standalone novel.
Book 2, THE CROSS AND THE CURSE, is already finished. It follows on straight after The Serpent Sword. The Bernician Chronicles continue in a third novel, the title of which I am planning to announce soon. I am about 30,000 words into the first draft of it, and it is just starting to all fall into place.
Speaking of plots…are you a plotter or a pantster? Did you create an outline or just write by the seat of your pants?
I create a high-level plot based on some specific historical events. This gives me the major beats of the story. I then allow the characters and the situations to drive the details as I write. This often results in interesting twists that I hadn’t foreseen!
Do you have a particular time of day for writing? A special writing place?
I write when and where I can! I find that I work best when I have a limited time in which to write, an hour or two at most. Nowadays, I do most of my writing in the spare room at home, but I have written parts of my first two novels in trains, airplanes, airports, hotels, school halls, cars (not whilst in motion!), libraries, the living room, kitchen, a holiday flat in Cornwall, and probably other places I can’t remember.
Are there certain types of scenes you find harder to write than others?
I find it most difficult to write emotional scenes with lots of interior dialogue, though I know that novels need this depth. I find it much easier to write external, physical scenes, particularly battles and combat.
What was your route to publication?
After completing The Serpent Sword, I decided to look for an agent and then to seek a traditional publishing deal. I sent out half a dozen submissions to agents who represented authors I admired and I was lucky enough to get an offer of representation within a month. My agent is Robin Wade, who has other historical novelists on his list such as Anthony Riches and Russell Whitfield. He pitched the novel at the London Book Fair in 2014 and there was a lot of interest, but after nearly a year, eventually all the leads dried up and I decided to get the book out there and went down the independent publishing route.
What writers have inspired you? Any favorite books?
I’ve mentioned three authors already, Cornwell, Iggulden and Gemmell. My favourite novel is probably Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. I wrote a blog post a couple of years ago about some of my favourite novels: http://bernicia-chronicles.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/ten-great-historical-fiction-novels-or.html
Writing isn’t your only passion. Tell us about your rock band!
Back in 2007, I decided to form a rock band, Rock Dog (http://rockdogband.co.uk/). I’ve always sung and been in bands (I even auditioned for X-Factor, about ten years ago). Performing is part of who I am, and something I cannot imagine not doing though with all the time spent on the writing, I have had to cut down on the gigs and rehearsals! In many ways, it is the opposite of writing. You share the experience with a group of musicians, and as soon as you finish a song, you get a round of applause (hopefully!). The approval is instant. (For a show off like me, that is great!) Writing takes years and is totally solitary, and you are never sure if it is any good until you’ve put it out there.
For a clip of the band, check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7eqaIXjrU4
Who are your favourite authors now?
The newest author I’ve discovered is Robert Lautner (The Road to Reckoning). Other writers I really enjoy are Justin Hill, Angus Donald, Steven A. McKay and Paul Fraser Collard, to mention just a few.
Matthew, thanks for sharing your time with us today. Where can readers find you?
Get your copy of the The Serpent Sword at: http://getbook.at/TheSerpentSword
Matthew Harffy lived in Northumberland as a child and the area had a great impact on him. The rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline made it easy to imagine the past. Decades later, a documentary about Northumbria’s Golden Age sowed the kernel of an idea for a series of historical fiction novels. The first of them is the action-packed tale of vengeance and coming of age, THE SERPENT SWORD. The sequel is THE CROSS AND THE CURSE.
Matthew has worked in the IT industry, where he spent all day writing and editing, just not the words that most interested him. Prior to that he worked in Spain as an English teacher and translator. He has co-authored seven published academic articles, ranging in topic from the ecological impact of mining to the construction of a marble pipe organ.
Matthew lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.
When not writing, or spending time with his family, Matthew sings in a band called Rock Dog.