A Conversation with Historical Fiction author, M J Porter
Mary Anne: A huge congratulations on your novel. The Last King is the first book in the The Ninth Century series, could you tell us a little about your series and what inspired you to write it?
M.J Porter: Thank you for having me on your blog today.
I have wanted to write about Coelwulf, the main character, since discovering him while writing The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter (set about forty years later). I’ve been avoiding writing about King Alfred because of Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom books. But here was the opportunity to present a different interpretation of the same time period, using a recent archaeological find of 13 coins that presents Alfred and Coelwulf as equals. It was too good an opportunity to miss. (https://www.ashmolean.org/watlington-hoard)
The character of Coelwulf, his skills, and his personality, is a strange amalgamation of wanting to write an ‘edgier’ book (there’s a great deal of bad language in the book, blood and gore), while having a character who is just so good at what he does that people are in awe of him. In my mind Coelwulf is a mash-up of an 18 rated action film, with the sprinkling of an athlete at the peak of their career, and a very lethal one at that, with only one purpose in mind.
I intended to write just the one book, but I quickly changed my mind when I realised just how much I enjoyed writing the characters, and just how much I could gleam from the sources of the period.
Mary Anne: What drew you towards the Early Medieval era in which to set your book?
M.J Porter: I love the Early Medieval era. My first love was Elizabeth I, but at Uni I discovered the kingdoms of early England, the early Welsh kingdoms, and of course, the Vikings. I was fascinated by the development of the early kingdoms, of the people and of the interactions between them all. I’d only ever studied the Tudors and Louis XIV before (and the First World War). The earlier period had so much more scope for the imagination, and didn’t (in my mind, at least) get bogged down with tedious ‘ceremony’ and ‘court etiquette.’ I didn’t have to read lots of descriptions about the clothes that everyone wore.
I think it’s also a huge plus that the women of the Early English period are not the women of the medieval period – they are not ‘owned’ by their fathers or their husbands, they could witness legal documents, they could divorce their husbands and they could control more of their destiny. There aren’t too many women in The Last King, although I have written about them in other books set in Early England.
Mary Anne: What were the challenges you faced in researching this period of history and were there any unexpected surprises?
M.J Porter: Writing about this time period is fascinating. There is so much that is ‘known’ but also ‘not known’ and it’s only when you start to dig beneath the surface that you discover all the things you want to know that no one else ever seems to have considered writing down, or putting on the web. Focusing on historical figures for whom little is known, only adds to the frustration and desire to unravel events.
For The Last King, I spent a great deal of time looking at maps and learning about rivers and the ancient roads of Mercia. One of the most amusing aspects is trying to determine how long it would have taken people to get from one place to another! I rely on Google Maps and take a guess somewhere between how long it takes a person to walk or cycle there. I also ask my daughter many, many questions about horses as she works at the local stables. I’ve named Coelwulf’s horse after her favourite horse, although changed the name a little bit from Hayden to Haden, which surprised me by being Anglo-Saxon in origin.
Mary Anne: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction?
M.J Porter: For the Early English period, the most challenging aspect is understanding the sources. They are complicated and can never be taken at face value. Decisions have to be made about what to rely on, and what to ignore. Every writer, whether of fiction, or non-fiction, will have biases as to what they think constitutes ‘the historical record’ and what doesn’t. I personally prefer to use the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a starting point for my novels. Often the lack of information about my characters is enough to make me want to reconsider the narrative as it’s presented by the author(s), and the potential ‘other’ scenarios that they might be ignoring or covering-up.
Learning how to use the information the sources presents to make the time period feel ‘real’ is a challenge. There are no pictures of people, there’s rarely an idea of what people looked like, or what their personality was. It’s a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle without the picture before you and having to work your way ‘in’ from the border. But, it does give a writer more freedom than those writing about later time periods.
Mary Anne: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?
M.J Porter: Know the time period you’re writing about, and not just what happens during it, but also what happens both before, and after, and in neighbouring countries as well. And, be aware of what ‘might have happened’ if certain events – normally births, deaths or wars – hadn’t happened. Remember, your characters don’t have the benefit of hindsight that you have as a writer. Everything to them would have been immediate, imminent and happening to them. Don’t fall into the trap of presenting everything as a fait accompli.
And, be prepared to be frustrated. There is always some niggly little fact that is just not mentioned anywhere. The decision then has to be made as to whether to ‘make it up’ or write around it, and readers will somehow always know if you make it up.
And on a final note, be prepared to do something a little bit ‘different,’ be bold, be creative, do whatever has to be done to engage an audience with the time period.
Mary Anne: Thank you so much for dropping by and chatting with us today.
If you would like to find out more about M.J Porter and her fabulous series, The Ninth Century, then you know what to do SCROLL DOWN!
The Last King: England: The First Viking Age
(The Ninth Century Book 1)
By M J Porter
They sent three hundred warriors to kill one man. It wasn’t enough.
Mercia lies broken but not beaten, her alliance with Wessex in tatters.
Coelwulf, a fierce and bloody warrior, hears whispers that Mercia has been betrayed from his home in the west. He fears no man, especially not the Vikings sent to hunt him down.
To discover the truth of the rumours he hears, Coelwulf must travel to the heart of Mercia, and what he finds there will determine the fate of Mercia, as well as his own.
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The Last King: England: The First Viking Age
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M J Porter
I'm an author of fantasy (viking age/dragon themed) and historical fiction (Early English, Vikings and the British Isles as a whole before the Norman Conquest), born in the old Mercian kingdom at some point since AD1066. I write A LOT. You've been warned!
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