© 2016 Peter C Whitaker

Q. How has the Sorrow Song Trilogy come about?


A. I happened to mention to my wife when we were returning from a day in York that Stamford Bridge was the site of the largest battle between Saxons and Vikings that ever took place in England, and that the Saxons won, but that there's very little recognition of that fact. She suggested that I write about it so I did.


Q. Did you start out with a trilogy in mind?


A. No, like many people all I knew about 1066 was that King Harold fought at Stamford Bridge and then had to march south to Hastings to fight the Normans. It was while I was researching Stamford Bridge that I discovered the Battle of Fulford Gate, which was the reason for Harold's march north. I knew nothing about it previously; it barely rates a mention in most accounts of 1066, which is something that I do not understand as it is clearly the opening engagement. If the Saxons had won at Fulford Gate then the outcome at Hastings might have been very different, that sort of speculation usually fascinates historians but for so long the Battle of Fulford has apparently been ignored.


Q. Did the discovery of Fulford change your approach to writing the book?


A. Yes, absolutely. Originally I intended writing it from the perspective of both King Harold and Duke Guillaume and I thought that it would be told over two encounters, discovering a third changed all of that and made a trilogy quite logical. It also meant that both of my original principal characters had to be rethought as neither had any presence or influence at Fulford, that is when Coenred came into being.


Q. Did Coenred also force a change in your approach?


A. No, he was an answer to a problem. I realised that I needed a character that could and would be present at all three battles; that necessarily made him a warrior. This character would be the connexion between the books as they moved from one area to another, providing a degree of continuity.


Q. Did you look for a historical personage who could fulfill that role?


A. Yes, but the material available to us is so sparse that inventing such a character quickly became my only choice.


Q. Coenred is a huscarl, a member of a Saxon elite class; did you consider a character that was from lower down the social scale or even not a soldier as such?


A. I saw the huscarl as something of a middle-man in the pecking order. Yes, they were rich men, they had to be to afford their expensive war-gear, but they were not all members of the nobility, the eorldermen or high-theigns. Many were men who had distinguished themselves with acts of bravery or loyalty and been rewarded by their lord. I like that facet of Saxon society, the idea that people could and did advance themselves by their own talents and abilities. Also, because of their unique military position in the Saxon army, the huscarls gave access as a writer to both the common soldiers and their leaders. Making Coenred a huscarl of the House of Aelfgar allowed me to place him in the north to face King Hardrada but also, because of what I could discover of the character of both Eorl Edwin and Eorl Morcar, it made it reasonable for him to venture south with King Harold and stand at Hastings.


Q. How much research did this project demand?


A. A lot! Writing 'The War Wolf' seemed to take an awfully long time simply because so much of it was spent doing the necessary historical research.


Q. Is accuracy important to you?


A. Yes, very much. I do not see the point in writing a historical novel if you are not willing to put in the time to get things as accurate as possible. I have found that many people who read these books are themselves keen historians; they know and appreciate it when the author has done the work. I have had some very kind comments on the level of detail in my books, which is very rewarding in itself.


Q. Can you be too accurate in your writing?


A. Yes, I believe so, when you are working on a piece of fiction that is. The way I work is to write a very rough first draft. I don't attempt to be accurate; I simply make notes as to what I might have to research in detail. Usually, the first draft does not even end as such, it just reaches a logical point where I can leave it and then start the second draft, which is the real book in my opinion. There is a period of time between the two drafts, however, where the serious research is conducted. When I was writing 'The War Wolf' I did get somewhat bogged down in the detail, trying to find Saxons names for things like dresses, shirts, and such everyday items. My wife told me, after reading the first draft, that all these strange names were confusing and that really if I wrote that Mildryth was wearing a red dress that was really all the reader needed to know. She was proven right by the fact that once I stopped trying to authenticate the minutia my writing speeded up and became a lot more enjoyable. I think that I had a pretty authentic texture to the story achieved more by logical reference rather than laying it on with a trowel. I realised that what had started as a work of fiction was in danger of becoming a history text book, which basically meant that it was failing.


Q. You mentioned Mildryth there, she seems a very strong woman, did you intend her to be such an imposing person?


A. I am not sure if I would refer to her as imposing as such but yes, she is quite strong.


Q. Was that a conscious decision on your part, to have a strong woman character?


A. No, she just developed that way. I read about Tostig Godwinson's crimes and realised that he could indeed have murdered Mildryth's husband, almost without reproach. These things did go on back then. In pursuing that line it was obvious that Mildryth would indeed have to be a strong woman to survive such a terrible event. She does not wallow in self-pity; she is determined to live her life even when Tostig's shadow falls over her again. It also seemed reasonable to presume that a man like Coenred would not be attracted to a weak woman who bemoaned her constantly or one who spends most of the time as a spectator rather than a participant in events. That would not have interested me as a writer either.


Q. You said that you valued accuracy and 'The Sorrow Song' is based on actual historical events, how much do those events constrain your imaginative writing?


A. There is a level of constraint, that is true, but I prefer to see it not so much as a limiting device but rather as a means for developing self-discipline in writing. I have a narrow set of actual events around which I want to weave a broader series of fictional events as a means of tying both historical and imaginative characters together in a narrative that is, to the reader, both accurate and entertaining. The outcome of the battles cannot be changed, nor the fate of the historical characters, but the stories surrounding each military encounter and the impact of the outcomes of those violent meetings on the ordinary people can be explored in great detail all the same.


Q. Finally, how does 'The Demon of Harlech' fit in with 'The Sorrow Song Trilogy'?


A. 'The Demon of Harlech' was just fun on my part. Eorl Aelfgar was banished to Ireland by King Edward and he did sail to Wales to form an alliance with King Gruffydd Ap Llewellyn, it seemed logical that he would take his huscarls with him as he planned to intimidate King Edward into rescinding his banishment. I also attended college in Harlech, many years ago, and have a fondness for Gwynedd. Putting the two together I came up with 'The Demon of Harlech', which recounts a fictional adventure experienced by Coenred and his friend Sigbert some 11 years before the historical events of 1066.


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