Richard Denning lives with his wife and two children in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands of England where he works as a General Practitioner (family doctor).
Away from his medical practice he is a writer of historical fiction and fantasy with a special interest in the early Anglo Saxon period. He owns a sizeable collection of Anglo-Saxon replica items which he takes to school visits and local history societies. Two of his books are BRAG medallion honourees: The Last Seal and The Amber Treasure.
A keen player of board games and other games he is one of the directors of UK Games Expo (the UK’s largest hobby games convention). He is also a board game designer and his first Board Game ‘The Great Fire on London 1666’ was published by Medusa Games and Prime Games in October 2010.
Stephanie: Richard I am delighted to be chatting with you today about your book, The Amber Treasure. Your story is one of the best I have read this year. I am so intrigued with the setting and period of your story and how complex your characters are and the vivid historical detail you give…
597 A.D. Treachery in Dark Ages Northumbria
Cerdic is the nephew of a great warrior who died a hero of the Anglo-Saxon country of Deira. Growing up in a quiet village, he dreams of the glories of battle and of one day writing his name into the sagas. He experiences the true horrors of war, however, when his home is attacked, his sister kidnapped, his family betrayed and his uncle’s legendary sword stolen.
Cerdic is thrown into the struggles that will determine the future of 6th century Britain and must show courageous leadership and overcome treachery, to save his kingdom, rescue his sister and return home with his uncle’s s sword.
Richard: You are very kind with your comments. The point I try and make when I give talks on this period is that these people are not just dusty old names on manuscripts. They are not just bones in the ground. These folk lived their lives feeling similar fears, joys and passions that we feel today. The allies and the enemies may vary, the politics is different but the fundamentals remain the same. As I say in the book, you can tell they lived because the world changed whilst they were alive.
Stephanie: First, I would like to ask you what interest you the most about 6th Century Northumbria and the research that went involved for your story.
Richard: Ah well this period I label “the darkest years of the dark ages” because we are right in the middle of an absence of documentation. There is so little written down. What we have comes from no more than half a dozen documents over three centuries. Yet these years were the birth pangs of the British nations. It was these centuries from which England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales emerge into documented history. That fascinates me. That period took Briton from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Era of Alfred the Great and the Viking era and it forged much of what was the basis of the British races. I wanted to help tell that story.
Stephanie: Is Cerdic and his family fictional or were they real?
Richard: No, Cerdic is fictional as is his family. There are the lens through which we see the world inhabited by real characters. Aelle, Aethelric, Aethelfrith, Owain, Urien, Annerin the poet (who is mentioned here but we meet properly in Princes in Exile) and Aelle’s other children Acha and Edwin are all real. Cerdic is actually a British/Celtic name not a Saxon one. Why is he called that? Well maybe we will find out one day.
Stephanie: Is the Legendary Sword mentioned in your book real?
Richard: No but it is modelled on swords that were. The Anglo-Saxons believed in the power of swords. Tolkien years later took this concept when he created swords like Narsil, Flame of the West (Elendil’s and later Aragon’s sword). There are records of swords considered so powerful, so potent that they were “killed” by bending and distorting them before burial. Recently one was dug up which is strongly believed to be that of Ida, the first Bernician King who led his people off the boats and into Lindisfarne (now Holy island). He carved out the beginning of a nation there armed with a blade. Such a blade could never be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. So it was destroyed before burial with the great king.
Stephanie: What are Cerdic’s weaknesses and strengths?
Richard: Cerdic is deeply honourable and courageous and has a belief that somehow, somewhere out there, some fate or purpose e divinity is guiding his journey. I guess I hope that is true of all of us. His failing might be like, a bit like me, he perhaps is a too trusting at times and sometimes too likely to give people a chance when all the evidence runs contrary.
Stephanie: Will you please describe one for the battle scenes in your story?
Richard: The climactic battle of the book is the Battle of Catraeth. It is believed to have occurred in the 590s – maybe 597 as I placed it. This was one of the last chances for the British Kingdoms (the Welsh) to defeat the incoming Anglo-Saxons (the English) east of the Pennine mountains. At the time the British Kingdoms were still powerful and in possession of the last of the Roman style Cavalry. Battle in this period was between shield walls as it would be through to Hastings. It was brutal, close combat where heroism, strength and courage were paramount. It would have been all noise and blood and terror. That cavalry I mentioned was used in this battle and would have been terrifying.
Stephanie: There are a few places/areas that I was intrigued and would like to know more about. Catraeth-which you mention above- particularly stood out to me. What is it called now and where is it located?
Richard: Possibly Catterick in Yorkshire. There is some debate about it. The battle only really comes up in Y-Goddodin a Welsh Poem missed out of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle but that may be because the ASC is very south centric. This poem was written by Annerin a welsh poet who was present at the battle and later created once of the master pieces of the era in a poem about the battle. It described the Goddodin cavalry – from the region about Edinburgh and its fate.
Stephanie: Ah. It is really interesting. It keeps coming to mind and what a battle scene! I could see it being in Yorkshire and there definitely is a mysterious feel to the place when mentioned in your story.
Richard: There are SOME theories about it being elsewhere but the idea of it being at Stanwick Camp north of Catterick (an old Bronze Age fortress I believe which I visited) has long been postulated and seems to work well
Stephanie: I agree and I can’t see it being elsewhere having read your story, that is… I wish I could visit an old Bronze Age fortress! That is so fascinating.
Richard: Actually one or two mere miles from my house – one in a park we go to, now mostly covered with trees. The Britons liked there hill forts. They mostly abandoned them when the Romans were here but on many cases reopened them in the post Roman period. Thus the Anglo-Saxons would have encountered them in some cases not long abandoned or even still lived in.
Stephanie: How neat! Do you see any stone or building remains in the park? Or are there markers to mark where the fort might have stood? For those who don’t know, could you please tell how long the Romans were in that area?
Richard: Most of Britain is littered with Bronze Age hill forts. Most are mere marks in the earth. Some more obvious. The best preserved is Maiden Castle in the South and the Wrekin not far from where I live in the Midlands. They did not build in stone. Earth banks and ditches were topped with wooden palisades. Now the Romans DID build in stone and again there are many forts and temples still to be seen – only the foundations mind you – and of cause the mighty Hadrian’s Wall. The Romans first tried a raid in Julius Casers time but it was in the 70’s AD and there after that they came to stay. They withdrew in the early 5th century. So there were here for 300 years. During this time the Romans and the British blended into a Romano-British race.
Stephanie: How long did it take to write your story?
Richard: I started writing the Northern Crown series 15 years ago and published The Amber Treasure in 2009. So that book took ten years. Books since have got quicker but I needed to find out about the world first.
Stephanie: What was the writing process for Amber Treasure?
Richard: I was 32 years old and had taken a day off work. I needed thinking time. I am a GP (Family doctor) and at time that job can be a bit grim and demanding. I drove to Bosworth where Richard III died. I had no plan in mind but as I drove I thought. We had restructured the practice lately at that point and I had a bit more free time. Now apart from playing more board games – a passion of mine – I had an urge to write. But what, what about? For years I had been reading historical fiction with a passion. Bernard Cornwell in particular is a hero of mine (and a nice guy actually – I have met him twice briefly). I eventually realized that almost no one had written much about the Saxon period. (This was before Cornwell’s own awesome Viking era books). So I started reading … and reading about the Saxon period. (I now have a LOT of books about this period.) I came across the story of the Kingdom of Nothumbria and how it came to be. I realized then that this story needed to be told. Actually I originally called it “the Northern Crown” and it originally told Cerdic’s (and Northumbria’s) story from 597 to 616. Later I realized there was a whole series here and so the third book now has reached 604. The events of 616 are 2 or maybe 3 books away.
Stephanie: Were there any challenges you faced while writing your story?
Richard: Lack of reliable information. We know almost nothing of any detail at all of this period. Literally a decade can go by with NO documentation. An awful lot of guess work and improvisation is needed to construct a plausible version of history.
Stephanie: What are you currently working on now?
Richard: I am editing the third of my Hourglass Institute young adult Time Travel stories, Today’s Sacrifice. I am also starting the 4th Northern Crown book. Off to Wales on a bit of a field trip soon to check out the area. I do like to physically go places where a book is set if at all possible. There is something inspiring about standing where history happened and thinking about what occurred. It also helps a lot getting the lay of the land right.
Stephanie: Where can readers buy your book?
Richard: It is available in paperback via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, WH Smiths etc websites. Most book shops can order it in for you. It is also out in e-book form and mostly for FREE on Kindle, Nook, Apple and pretty much all e-book sites.
Stephanie: Thank you, Richard for this wonderful chat and I’m looking forward to reading and chatting with you about the next book in your trilogy, Child of Loki, soon!
Richard: Many thanks to you. You are doing a great job helping Indie authors get some recognition. I am glad you enjoyed the period of The Amber Treasure.