Monday 29 March 2021

Join The Coffee Pot Book Club in conversation with #HistoricalFiction author, Paul Bernardi #HistoricalFiction #Interview #KindleUnlimited @Paul_Bernardi @SharpeBooks


Publication Date: 15th February 2021

Publisher: Sharpe Books

Page Length: 252 Pages

Genre: Historical Fiction

January 1066.

King Edward has died. With no son or brother to succeed him, the throne has passed to Harold, Earl of Wessex, for little other reason than he knows how to fight, a quality that England will have need of before the year is out.

By September, England – the richest kingdom in Christendom – is beset on all sides by its enemies. To the north, the Vikings lurk, supported by Harold’s rebel brother, Tostig. While to the south, Duke William of Normandy awaits a fair wind to speed his ships to take the crown.

Thurkill, a young huscarl warrior in the service of the king, wants nothing more than to stand with his father’s forces in battle, to win glory and renown. He is eighteen, on the cusp of manhood, and eager to prove himself.

But he soon comes to realise that surviving the bloody carnage of the shield wall is only the start of his trials.

It is only after the conflict at Stamford Bridge and the devastating defeat at Hastings not three weeks later, that the warrior comes to understand the true meaning of duty. Returning to his village, he finds his father's lands occupied by the enemy and his family, the people of the village, looking to him for protection.

With the Normans now rampaging across the south of England, Thurkill not only learns how to fight and survive - but he must draw his sword to save his family and countrymen.

Mary Anne: A huge congratulations on your new release, Thurkill's Revenge (The Huscarl Chronicles Book 1), could you tell us a little about your series and what inspired you to write it?

Paul Bernardi: Thank you, Mary Anne and thank you also for allowing me this opportunity to share this novel with you and your readers.

The series follows the adventures of a young Saxon warrior, Thurkill, who has been raised by his father, Scalpi, to be a warrior in the service of King Harold. Warriors such as Thurkill were known as Huscarls (a Danish word literally meaning ‘house-man’). Although this was a time before professional armies – each lord bringing his own retinue of warriors to a battle – the huscarls formed the elite cadre of the king’s army. 

The tale in book one begins in September 1066, with Harold facing invasion in the north (from the old Viking enemy) and, almost immediately after, from the Normans in the south. Overcoming his initial terror, Thurkill joins his first battle at Stamford Bridge where finds he has a natural ability with sword and shield; though he only narrowly escapes death at Hastings where he stands with Harold to the end. 

But with the battle lost and the king slain, it is only now that his real struggle begins as he returns home to find Normans have taken over his home, putting the lives of his kin at risk. Using just those few comrades he manages to gather to his cause, he must fight to rid his village of the enemy and, in so doing, save his aunt and sister from the clutches of Richard FitzGilbert. 

Without giving too much away, books two and three (both of which should follow in 2021 from Sharpe Books), follow Thurkill’s adventures in the months and years after the Battle of Hastings as he tries to find his way in the new country that England has become. Whilst he yearns for a simple village life, tending the land and raising a family, he becomes increasingly aware of the growing excesses of the rapacious Norman overlords. Can he stand by and do nothing? Events will conspire to take the decision out of his hands.

As far as inspiration is concerned, I have long wanted to be an author and I knew that – were I to ever realise that dream – it was always going to be historical fiction that I would write. History has fascinated me from a young age, the castles of north Wales in particular, had me in their grip. It was always my favourite subject at school as well, thanks in no small part to some truly inspirational teachers, and I was fortunate enough to be able to go on to study history at the University of Leeds where I focussed on the Anglo-Saxon era between the end of the Roman Empire and the coming of the Normans.

I had never really looked at this period before and I was fascinated from the off. That, combined with my love of most things Tolkein, was all the inspiration I needed. The Riders of Rohan were, for me, the huscarls of the Anglo-Saxon age. The similarity can be seen in their clothes, weapons and armour but also because in the code of honour and comradeship that binds them together under their leader, Eomer. The only slight misstep in that thinking being, of course, that huscarls might ride to reach a battle but, once there, the business of killing would be done on foot.

Mary Anne: 1066 was a momentous year for England. I have been to Hastings several times, the last time being in 2016 when English Heritage celebrated the battle’s 950th Anniversary. Why do you think this era in history continues to fascinate?

Paul Bernardi: That’s a great question, but I’m not sure if there is a definitive answer. Whilst being well-served in terms of books (both fact and fiction), I don’t believe that the events of 1066 have ever received the so-called, Hollywood treatment. Given how important that one year is in shaping the centuries that followed, I find it quite surprising that no one has yet come forward with a major film project for this era. Sean Bean could reprise his roles of Boromir and Ned Stark to play King Harold. On the flip side, we seem to get a new Robin Hood movie every few years (some of which – in my lowly opinion – we could well have done without). 

Perhaps the fact that Shakespeare did not extend his histories to cover this period has not helped to secure a stronger place for it in popular culture? But, as you suggest, it is true to say that there have been few years as tumultuous as 1066 in the history of this nation over the last two thousand years or so. Through a combination of death in battle or subsequent dispossession, fewer than ten percent of those Saxons that were landowners in 1066 were still there by the time that the Domesday Book was written. Whether the Saxons liked it or not, the Normans had come, and they were there to stay. And we could spend many hours debating whether that was – on balance – a good or bad thing. 

Mary Anne: What were the challenges you faced in researching this period of history and were there any unexpected surprises?

Paul Bernardi: Even though my time at university was more years ago than I care to mention, I did have a solid enough grounding in the period to have a good grasp of the main events surrounding 1066. That said, I always finding it amazing – when you start to really dig - how much of what you think you know is wrong and how much there is that you never knew at all. 

Fortunately, I have always loved reading history books, so I would not call research a chore as such. That said, my natural impatience, often sees me having to fight the urge not to close the book and put finger to keyboard in my desire to start writing. I’m the same with new gadgets; I just want to start using them rather than bother with reading the manual. It doesn’t often end well. 

A couple of things surprised me in my research. I had not appreciated just how close Edward the Confessor had been to the Normans before he became King of England. When his father, Aethelraed Unraed had lost the throne to the Danish invader, Knut, in 1016, Edward’s mother, Emma (who was, herself, sister to a Duke of Normandy) fled across the channel with her two young sons. Edward then spent the next 26 years growing up in the court of the Norman Dukes, living cheek by jowl with the likes of William and his father, Robert. Once he became king, he was not slow to bring Normans over to place in positions of authority (Robert of Jumieges becoming Archbishop of Canterbury to name but one example), perhaps to act as a counterbalance to the ever-increasing power of the Godwine family. So, it seems hardly surprising to me that he might, as suggested by Norman chroniclers, have offered the throne to William in 1051 in the event that he should die childless. 

I was also interested to learn that the traditional story of Harold being killed by an arrow to the eye is, in fact, most unlikely. No other contemporary source mentions it and there is doubt about whether the tapestry even showed an arrow in its original incarnation. One of the most contemporary sources (the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, or Song of the Battle of Hastings) tells how he was hacked down and brutally mutilated by a group of four Norman knights. Given that William needed to kill Harold to be certain of effecting regime change, this seems a far more probable scenario. But also, one that was much less likely to be depicted in the old Ladybird Kings and Queens of England series.

But by far the most interesting nugget I came across was the story of Edgar Aetheling whom you could say was the last Saxon King of England. His story also begins in 1016 when another of Aethelraed’s sons – Edmund Ironsides – led a short-lived campaign to save England from the Danish conquest. When he died later that year, his infant children, (another!) Edward and Edmund, were captured by Knut and sent to Sweden to be murdered. However, for reasons unknown, the Swedish king refused to do Knut’s dirty work and, instead, sent the young boys to Hungary. Edmund dies at some point, but Edward (known as The Exile, unsurprisingly) grows up, marries a Hungarian princess and has three children, one of whom is Edgar. When, in 1057, it looks likely that King Edward the Confessor will have no children, Edward the Exile returns to England, presumably invited by some court faction to be the next king. As a scion of the House of Wessex, he is better qualified than any to take the throne but – as luck would have it – he dies within days of his arrival (foul play cannot be ruled out, though the exact cause is unknown). He left behind his young son, Edgar, who would have been no more than about 5 at that time. In January 1066, it should have been Edgar who was acclaimed king, but he was overlooked by the Witan (the Council whose job it was to choose the next king). With the Normans threatening from the south, did they really want an unproven teenager leading their army? It was for this reason that Harold was chosen to be king in spite of his having no blood relation to the House of Wessex. But Edgar’s time would come, albeit briefly. Once Harold had been killed in battle, the surviving Saxon lords elected Edgar king. In Saxon law, election was all that was needed, whereas the Normans dated kingship from the day of the coronation. So, as Edgar was not formally crowned, and because the victors write the history, Edgar is never included in the lists of English monarchs. A little unfair if you ask me.

Finally, I was pleased to discover the inspiration for one of the most famous scenes in Monty Python’s Holy Grail film which took place during the siege of Exeter in early 1068. I’ll say no more (nudge nudge, wink wink) because I managed to include it in Book 3 and it wouldn’t do to spoil the fun.

Mary Anne: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction?

Paul Bernardi: I think there are several things. Some might say that writing about a period about which comparatively little is known might be difficult, but I tend to like the freedom that this provides. I like to have the basic facts of the period as the skeleton on which I can then add the muscles, tendons and flesh of the story to form a complete body. 

What I find harder, I suppose, is knowing when to cut down on the detail. I have long been accused of being someone who can be a bit wordy (you should see some of my work emails; I can only apologise to all those colleagues who have had to read them over the years). Achieving the balance between historical detail – which I think helps paint a realistic picture while giving the reader the reassurance of knowing that they are in the hands of someone who knows their subject – and keeping a pacy and exciting narrative can be hard. I am grateful to the guys at Sharpe Books for helping to point out those occasions when I perhaps get a little carried away. That said, my love of detail has often featured positively in several of the reviews I have received. Someone somewhere appreciates it, I suppose! 

Finally, I think a significant challenge for me is the storyline. When I sit down to write a novel, I often have little idea of where I am going. I have a reasonable idea of where I will start and where I hope to end, but how I intend to get there is a mystery. In my more devilish moments, I see that as part of the fun. At other, more rational, times, it scares the hell out of me.

Mary Anne: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?

Paul Bernardi: When I was starting out, I used to think that I could not write about a particular period, because someone else already had. This was one of the main reasons why I steered away from the seventh century (which had been the focus of my degree studies) because there were people doing great work already in that era (people like Matthew Harffy and Edoardo Albert for example). It took me a while to realise that what was most important was that you need to find your own story and tell it in your own way and not to be constrained by what others were doing. Perhaps one day, I’ll get back to the time of Kings Edwin, Raedwald and Aethelfrith. 

I think the other thing for me is perseverance and discipline. Over the years I have been writing, I have got to know quite a few authors of different genres, and I am often impressed – and not a little dismayed – at how quickly they seem to churn out material. It may well be that I am just slow (I aim to have a book ready each year, work allowing), but I do feel that historical fiction requires a little more in the way of attention to detail. For me, you want to evoke something of the realism of the period in your story – to try and transport you reader from a drizzly Sunday afternoon on the sofa to the wet and wild landscape of eleventh century England. To do that, you need to do your homework: what would they have been wearing? Where would they have lived? What would they have cared about? All these things will help make your story a colourful romp through time.

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Paul Bernardi is an author of historical fiction. After leaving university in 1990 with a Masters’ degree in Anglo-Saxon studies, he began work for a major UK financial institution, though his passion for all things historical remained undiminished. Paul is the author of the Huscarl Chronicles series dealing with the Norman Conquest and its aftermath.

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See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx